Batchelder Family Vacation

 

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At the end of the week my parents and brother arrived in Prague, and I had never been so happy to see them. I couldn’t wait to show them Prague and all the places I had been over the semester. This was my brother’s first time out of the country, although he likes to think he’s been to Canada even though flying over a country obviously doesn’t count, and this was my mom’s first time to Europe. I was glad to be staying in a hotel after spending so much time in a hostel. On the first night my parents were in town I gave them a very long walking tour to introduce them to Prague and took them through Old Town Square, across the Charles Bridge, and up to eat at a restaurant near the Strahov Monastery, and anyone familiar with Prague knows that its a very long walk to make, but luckily they found Prague just as beautiful as I thought they would.

For the rest of the time in Prague I went to my first mass in Czech, ate and drank at many delicious restaurants and pubs around town, toured the Jewish quarter and Prague castle, and also took a family Segway tour around the city, which was even more fun than I expected (Also more difficult).

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I asked them if anything about me had changed while I had been gone, and my mom remarked that after being in Europe I speedwalked wherever I went. I guess this is just a result of having walked everywhere I went for four months. 

They were amazed at how old the buildings are in Prague, as well as the unique customer service experiences. For example, at our hotel restaurant I believe my dad ordered a hamburger and the waitress came out with a plate of fish. When he told her they had made a mistake, the waitress responded with “No, you ordered fish,” and walked away. Unlike them I was of course used to this sort of thing, but fortunately I think he found the fish to be very delicious. My mom was also surprised with how many people smoked in Europe and how smoky the restaurants were, something I hadn’t even notice anymore.

After almost a week in Prague we took the train to Vienna. Being back in the Hlavni Nadrazi train station I was very wary of thieves and watched our bags like a hawk. This was officially my last time leaving Prague, my home for four months, for who nows how long. I can say without a doubt that it’s my favorite city in the world, and I can’t wait to return.

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Me with a golden Eagle near the castle

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My parents and I at Prague Castle

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St. Vitus Cathedral

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This was my second trip to Vienna this semester, but the first time I had only been there for a day so it was nice to really get a feel for the city. We saw many of the famous Vienna attractions: the Schomburg Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, saw a Lippizan horse show, and ate plenty of wienerschnitzel. Funnily enough, my parents ran into a couple they knew from Omaha in the middle of Stephansplatz, a square in Vienna. Just goes to show what a small world it is, as they say.

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Wiener Souvenirs Image

I’m pretty sure all four of us enjoyed Vienna as well. It seems similar to Prague in a few ways, but much more formal and regal, with all the palaces and gardens and museums. Mozart is still pretty big here and you see men wearing those famous Mozart wigs all around town trying to get you to attend classical concerts. The cafes are also really cool, especially the ones that sell Sachertorte, a Vienna delicacy that I would love to one day eat again. 

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Our third destination was also my favorite (other than Prague):Lucerne, Switzerland, and getting there was half the fun. Our train went through the Alps, and on the way we could see mountain lakes, picturesque villages, and snowcapped peaks, basically what you’d expect to see in Switzerland. It really was breathtaking. 

The town of Lucerne, only about an hour away from Zurich on the train, is situated on Lake Lucerne, and the restaurant at our hotel hung just over the lake on a balcony. As we ate here we enjoyed watching the swans swim by and threw food out to them. After coming from Prague, where prices are fairly reasonable, I was shocked to see how expensive Switzerland is, and every meal seemed to be over $30 dollars converted from Swiss Francs. At our hotel, a hamburger was almost $40. 

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Lion carved into the rocks in Lucerne

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(View from the hotel restaurant)

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We spent plenty of time touring Lucerne, went on a boat cruise, and took a gondola up to the top of the mountain, which seemed to be in the middle of a blizzard despite the fact that it was June. I was shocked to see that the vast majority of tourists who went up to the top of the mountain were either Chinese or Indian, and they even had a curry stand at the top of the mountain to accommodate these tourists. As a lover of Indian food, I had no problem with this.

To me, Switzerland seems almost perfect. A clean, safe, and beautiful country of Alpine villages, mountains, and lakes. I guess that’s the reason everything here is so expensive. Also, I have no idea what the nightlife is like there, but I’m guessing it’s not quite as fun as Prague’s. But perhaps one of the reasons I liked it so much is that I had spent so much of my time in Europe in bustling cities, and Lucerne was nothing like this. Although they did have amazing public transportation for a town of less than 100,000.

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Peter and I also got a kick out of how the German word for exit is “Ausfahrt.”

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The last and final leg of our voyage was in Munich, where it became clear that my days in Europe were numbered. We spent our time in Munich touring the town, going to Dachau, and going to Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairytale castle built by Mad King Ludwig which is surprisingly only like 150 years old, aka really new for Europe.

I remember my last few days in Munich, after eating heavy German food for so long, I was really just craving a Subway sandwich. Right now this seems hilarious to me because I don’t even like Subway that much, and all I really want to eat now is ghoulash and dumplings. Thinking about those German beer halls at places like the Hofbrahaus, where everyone drinks out of a giant liter mug, are really making me miss the good times of Europe.

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Apparently people in Munich actually wear these clothes.

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Neuschwanstein Castle (I was the only one in the family that could pronounce it)

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This was after a whole lot of family time

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My dad wanted to see Dachau, the first concentration camp, so we had a tour guide take us there our second to last day in Europe. Obviously it was a somber experience being there, and it was my second visit to a concentration camp that semester. I think its good to visit at least once if you’re in Germany simply to be more aware of the sometimes dark and horrible history of the country. It’s obviously not something Germans are proud of, but it seems they have learned from their history and are open and honest about their past instead of sweeping it under the rug. What I found strange is that there are houses lined up literally right next door to the camp. I assumed they had been there since before World War II, but apparently they had been built afterwards. I can’t understand why someone would want to live next to a place like that, considering seeing Dachau once is enough for most people.

On the last day we went with our tour guide Tricia to see Neuschwanstein Castle. When people think of castles, they probably envision Neuschwanstein, and I’ve heard it’s also the basis for the castle at DisneyWorld. The Alps were also very impressive and there was a wooden bridge overlooking a waterfall that had a great view of the castle.

At this point I think all of us had experienced a lot of traveling in the past two weeks. We had all had a great trip but I had been living between hostels and hotels for over a month, and had been away from America for over four months, so I was relatively excited to get back to Omaha. However, this had been the time of my life, and I would never forget it.

The next day we went home. I was glad to be back in my own bed and see my friends again, but within a few weeks I realized that Omaha just isn’t as exciting as Prague. I missed the food, the bars, the cities, but most of all the people in my program. 

I’ve already visited several ISA friends in El Paso just a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to visiting many more in the future.

It was almost a year ago that I published my first blog post, and almost a year ago since I left for Europe. While I had hoped that I would have finished this blog months ago, procrastination got the best of me, but at least I finished. In a way, I think I might have purposely procrastinated so I could keep reliving my study abroad experience for as long as possible. 

I’m very thankful that I had this opportunity, and I would encourage anyone else who’s considering studying abroad to take a leap and just do it. I can almost promise you it will be worth it in the end. Thanks to everyone who kept reading my blog on a regular basis, even if it might have just been my parents and my aunts. I hope I kept you entertained. Perhaps the next time I go somewhere crazy or do something adventurous I’ll blog about it, but I’ll at least try to be more prompt. Anyways, it’s been real. Adios.

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The Terrible Train Ride to Amsterdam

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The day after the program ended I spent most of the morning packing and cleaning up the apartment. It was the first time I was reluctant for a semester to end, and I knew I would probably never see this apartment again. Campbell had already left for Istanbul and Stan was leaving later that day to stay with his grandma in a small Czech town. Molly was off seeing the European Union’s longest escalator while I finished packing my bags for the train to Amsterdam later that day. I then realized that the train left in only forty five minutes and Molly was not back yet. I still wasn’t finished packing, so when she finally got back to the apartment it was a mad rush to get to the train before its departure.

With only a moment to look back at our apartment on Benedikstka street to appreciate all that had happened here, we ran towards the tram to get to the train station while I carried everything we owned. What followed were some of the most stressful hours of my life.

Our train was the furthest platform in the station, so we had to sprint to make it in time. The handle of my bag on wheels was broken so I constantly had to readjust it and I was definitely cussing with frustration the whole way through the station. It was my first time riding the trains in Europe so I wasn’t exactly sure where to go, but while roaming the narrow corridors a bag fell off my shoulder and was grabbed by an elderly man, who handed it back to me. I thanked him, and he asked in broken English whether or not I had gotten my ticket stamped. I told him no, and he looked alarmed and told me I needed to go to the officer right outside the door, about ten yards away. 

I resisted at first, but the man insisted this was absolutely necessary for every passenger. Molly had already walked down the corridor looking for our seats, and I was too stressed and too tired to remember any of the stranger-danger lessons I had been taught. So I put my bags down and walked over to the officer who would stamp my ticket. I looked back and the man on the train was urging me forward and pointing out the officer who I needed to speak with. So I turned around and handed him my ticket, but he gave me a curious look, and in that moment I realized what I had done. 

I sprinted back to my train car to see the man had disappeared along with my backpack. I was too shocked to realize what had just happened, and this backpack contained my most prized possessions: my laptop, camera, kindle, movie collection,and books. Within only a few seconds I heard a voice speaking in Czech over the intercom and the train began its journey out of the station. That sneaky thief had conned me out of all my stuff, and if I didn’t get it back my valuables would probably be sold over the black market.

Molly came back and I told her what had happened, so we both split up wandering the train telling everyone that my bag had disappeared. The customer service on the train was awful, the worst I have ever experienced, which made it particularly disappointing considering the severity of the situation. With only one exception, every train employee who I talked to simply shrugged their shoulders and told me this wasn’t their responsibility. I was livid. 

I called the ISA office and Lucie and Daniela were very helpful and called the Czech police to try to track down the man that stole my bag. I even called the Apple store to see if there was any way to track my laptop. My heart sank as I realized there was nothing they could do; my stuff was gone. The next hours were without question the worst of the semester, as I sat trapped in my tiny train bunk with my computer gone, thinking I would fail my classes as I had to start all my final papers over. I had not finished all my projects and since I had not e-mailed them to myself there was nothing else I could do but start over.

I’m sure I must have been a terrible travel companion that day. Molly tried to cheer me up by saying that someday I would look back on this day and laugh. “Well I’m not laughing now!” I snapped. What made the whole situation worse was being stuck in a cramped sleeper car with nowhere else to go but wander the corridors. 

When we got to Amsterdam the weather was gray and gloomy, fitting for what my mood was like. Amsterdam is very beautiful but I was in no mood to enjoy the city. I wouldn’t have time to anyways. I called the ISA office again and Daniela explained to me that I couldn’t have any more than an extra day to finish my finals, so I headed to the Amsterdam Public Library to write all my papers while Molly saw all the tourist sites and explored the city. In the hours I spent re-writing my finals in the library, I realized for the first time since I arrived in Europe that I was sick of traveling and really just wanted to go home.

I did get a chance to walk around Amsterdam a bit and explore the city, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more under better circumstances. I was also planning to go to Brussels after Amsterdam but I had too much to get done and really wasn’t in the mood, so after a few days in Amsterdam I booked a flight back to Prague, which I decided was a much better option than taking the train. Although I wanted to go home, that wasn’t really an option considering my family was coming soon for a two-week vacation, so I went to the closest home I had at the time: Prague.

When I returned, Prague felt empty, and I had booked a bed at the only hostel I knew of: The Old Prague Hostel, which unfortunately was literally right across the street from my old apartment on Benedikstka street. All my friends had left Prague and I spent all my time between the Prague hostel and the library rewriting my papers. I also went to the police station to file a police report with Lucie, and although I was hopeful, the chances that they would find my computer were miniscule, and they never ended up finding anything.

Although this week was the worst I had spent in Europe and I felt angry, stupid, and embarrassed for stepping away from my bag and having it stolen, the next two and a half weeks were much, much better. My family soon arrived and we traveled around four countries and I finished all my finals in time so everything worked out alright in the end. Having all your possessions stolen is always a terrible way to end your semester, but it had already been the best semester of my life, so besides that unfortunate event, I had loved my time in Europe and really had no reason to complain.

 

 

 

Last Week of the Semester

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Earlier on I joked that if I kept posting blogs at the same pace I wouldn’t be done until Christmas. Well, it’s a week from Christmas and I’ve still got two posts to go, so it turns out that actually happened. Anyways, as the title suggests this post will cover the last week of the program, where I was in a mad rush to finish my Prague bucket list as well as write all my final papers.

In most of my classes we had until the weekend after we finished school to finish all our finals, so I planned to write a few of my papers on the train to Amsterdam after the program ended. Looking back, that was a terrible idea, but I’ll cover more of that in the next post.

My classmate from Creighton Molly Manning had been studying abroad in Florence, so after her program ended she came to Prague for a few days for a visit. It was fun to show her around my favorite city, and there were also several tourists things I needed to that I had been putting off for a very long time (just like this blog).  I wanted to go to Vysehrad, an old castle and cathedral with a beautiful lookout view over the river, and Prague Castle, which was allowing people into parts of the castle that were only open once a year. There were several clubs I wanted to go to as well, such as Chapeau Rouge and some other place I can’t remember.

The whole week was bittersweet. It was much more fun than the average week but every day, more and more people would leave for America, so it was definitely our last hoorah in Prague. One night we went clubbing in Wenceslaus Square, a place I had been probably hundreds of times that semester, yet for some reason when I was leaving the club at 4:30 am I accidentally took the wrong tram and ended up in the Prague suburbs in the opposite direction of my apartment. I had no idea where I was and it took me until 7 am to get back to my apartment. This was only one of the many times I got lost that semester, and I suppose because of times like this I developed the reputation of being terrible with directions, which I believe is only half-true. Half the time I am terrible with directions and the other half I am simply mediocre.

The first night Molly was in town we went out for pizza, which I felt bad about since she had just left Italy, but luckily we got the chance to eat plenty of Czech food while she was in town. It turns out Molly is a vegetarian, which makes dining in the Czech Republic pretty tough. Czech food is basically pork or beef with some potatoes or sauerkraut with hardly any fruits or vegetables, so clearly being a vegetarian in this country takes some serious willpower.

I had told her that the longest escalator in Europe was in Prague, at the Namesti Miru metro stop, and she was very interested in the chance of seeing this somewhat impressive site. It turns out its not actually the tallest in Europe (there’s one in Moscow that’s taller) but, I mean it’s gotta at least in the top five.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKwaIY3TqKQ

(Okay turns out it’s the longest escalator in the European Union, so I was close) Also this video is probably really boring if escalators aren’t your thing.

Some memories include finding out that the Kafka Museum is actually really lame and having one final dinner at U Trajcu, the authentic Czech pub where you can get a full meal and a liter of beer for 100 crowns, the equivalent of $5! Another memory I’ll never forget is watching the Czech Republic vs. Sweden game on a giant projection screen in Wenceslaus Square. The night was warm, the surroundings were beautiful, and I was surrounded by hundreds of rowdy and drunk Czech excited to see their country defeat some Swedes (which they did). They played “I Want to Break Free” by Queen during halftime, and now whenever I hear that song it takes me right back to that very moment in Old Town Square.

After a night of late-night clubbing at a place called Nebo, which means “Heaven” in Czech, all but five people in the group slept through the graduation ceremony the next day, myself included. I felt guilty for missing it, but at least I wasn’t the only one.

Later that day the ISA crew (Daniela, Lucie, Martin, and Tamara) surprised us with a dinner cruise in the Vltava river, and I saw Prague like I had never seen it before.

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The dinner was of course Czech food and thinking of the ghoulash, dumplings, and beer is really making me want to go back to Prague, or at least go to the Bohemian Cafe. The night was still young by the time the boat ride ended, so we did a little bar hopping and ended up at a place called “The Music Club.” After dancing for hours people began leaving throughout the night. Some were going home, some were traveling around Europe, but all I knew is that I would not see these people for a very long time.

As the sun was rising I stood outside the club with some of my best friends. I’ve said many times in my blog that “It was hard to leave Madrid,” or “It was hard to leave Paris,” but this was different. I had no idea when I would see these people again, the people that I had spent four months of my life with, and the only people I knew in a foreign country far from home. The cities and places I went to were great, but they don’t mean anything if not for the people you enjoy them with. They made my time in Europe what it was more than any bars, clubs, or castles ever could. So after several difficult goodbyes, I headed back for my apartment and began packing for Amsterdam. If I only knew what was in store for me the next day, I would have never left Prague.

Day Trippin’ (And Other Aspects of Life Abroad)

The summer is nearly over, and with class and other important matters coming up, it seems this blog had been pushed to the side. But it’s important that I finish my story, as this was a semester worth remembering.

This blog post will be a collection of all the day trips and trips within the Czech Republic, as well as the trip to Vienna. Also, I’ll cover other aspects of my time abroad that I never got to, such as Nations2Nations and classes

Kutna Hora

This was the first of our excursions, and if it wasn’t the creepiest, it was certainly the coldest. It was also my first taste of life in small town Czech Republic and my first trip outside of Prague. The highlight of the town is the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel filled with almost 70,000 skulls and bones decorating the chapel. These skulls formed the chandeliers and lined the walls. It was a creepy, yet fascinating place, bone chilling in more ways than one. We then walked across the medieval town which was covered in snow, and filled with fountains and statues, where we also ate a traditional Czech meal of soup and potatoes. The cathedral and castle were also an impressive sight. Although the frigid air led an eerie quality to the chapel of bones, overall it was so unbearably cold it was almost hard to function. But it was great taste of what was in store the rest of the semester, and that there is more to the Czech Republic than just Prague.

Terezin

This was one of the more somber day trips we went on. Terezin is a very bleak, depressing town with a medieval fortress that was most recently used as a concentration camp during World War II. Even apart from the actual concentration camp the town seemed to be such a sad, lonely place. Part of the town was used as a ghetto and the other was used as a  concentration camp. We toured through the tunnels that were used long before World War II, and saw the horrific conditions the Jews and other prisoners here suffered through. Although tens of thousands of people died here it was not technically an extermination camp, and the prisoners here would be sent from here to their demise at other camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was made by the Nazis to be a “model” concentration camp for the Red Cross, which meant that to prevent overcrowding and improve the conditions many people were sent off to Auschwitz. A propaganda film was even made here, but after the film was made most of those involved were sent to their deaths.

We also saw the cell of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which in turn started World War I. When you think about it, this one man started World War I, and the effects of this terrible war also helped to cause World War II, which changed the world forever. This may be a stretch, but I couldn’t help but think of how the actions of this one man completely changed history.

Coming to Terezin was not exactly an uplifting experience, but I think that when you come to learn about a place, you have to discover the evil as well as the good. And that evil is certainly present at Terezin.

Spa Towns

(picture courtesy of Lauren Boyer)

The trip to the spa towns was interesting because these towns seem to be the hotspot for old people from across the country. On the first day, we stayed in Marianske Lazne, a very picturesque town where we sampled the various spring waters, which tasted like a mixture of salt and metal, but the over eighty crowd couldn’t get enough of this stuff. We then split up into two groups, and I was once again the only male in my group, to go to one of the many spas in Marianske Lazne. The spas were fun, and it was nice to swim and relax in various hot tubs and steam baths, and an area where the water switched from frigid to extremely hot. The spas in Marianske Lazne really could not compare to the spas in Budapest, but one thing that these spas had that the spas at Budapest did not, was a wide variety of naked people. Although the majority at least had a speedo or bikini, there were people both young and old who went au naturel.

I first realized this when walking into the steamy sauna. I knew there were a few people behind me, but after having a conversation inside the sauna for several minutes they got up and it was revealed that the people behind me had been nude all along.

Another uncomfortable situation was when I walked into a steam room filled with the rest of my program, but the only place to sit down was right next to a nudist. It may have been a little awkward at first to see all these random naked people but after awhile it didn’t seem to be a big deal. It’s definitely true that Europeans are more comfortable with nudity than Americans, as everyone in my all-American ISA group insisted on keeping their suits on.

Compared to most other places in Europe, the nightlife in Marianske Lazne seemed a little quiet. There seemed to be only one bar/ restaurant and apparently a disco filled with old Russians.  That disco sounded perfect to me but for some reason nobody else wanted to go. So we had a fun night out at some bar where I drank absinthe for the second time ever, and I have to say that although it ‘s a terrible drink, it is a little more tolerable if you set a spoonful of sugar on fire, as recommended. It does however give the impression that you’re cooking meth, but mixing this sugar does make this terrible drink go down easier.

The next day we went to another spa town: Karlovy Vary. This was a town completely overrun by Russian tourists, with most of the signs in Cyrillic. It’s also famous for the Grandhotel Pupp, pronounced like “poop”, where James Bond played poker in Casino Royale. We then took some sort of tram up the side of the mountain, where we found an observation tower, and what could have been the world’s smallest zoo. It was basically like a pig, a sheep, and a llama, but still they advertized it as a zoo. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Henry Doorly Zoo, but to me, a zoo should have more than three farm animals.

The tour of the Becherovka factory was next. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, Becherovka is a Czech liquor that tastes sort of like cinnamon. Anyways, it came with plenty of free samples.  By mid-afternoon it was time to go home (aka back to Prague) Although Karlovy Vary is a nice town, it was not one of my favorite destinations, which could have been partly because the weather was so bad, and also because I ran into some seriously terrible customer service here, which is saying something if you’re in the Czech Republic. Wonderful country, not so wonderful service. It may not have been my favorite trip, but it was certainly an eye opening experience.

Vienna and Moravia

Our journey to Vienna began with a stop at a group of caves in the Czech Republic called the Punkva caves, where we first toured through massive caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. This was my first experience touring through caves and it was even cooler than The Kingdoms of the Night at the Henry Doorly Zoo. While exploring these caves walked out to see we were at the bottom of a giant crevice, complete with a waterfall, and we could see out all the way to the forest. Adding to this mood was opera music which made the whole thing much more dramatic. We then kept walking until we came to an underground river, where we all crammed into boats and rafted through a labyrinth of watery passageways. It reminded me of the scene in Hercules where they raft through the river in Hades, with dead souls swimming beneath them. It was an unreal experience, unlike anything else I’ve done, and I would recommend it to anyone traveling to the Czech Republic.

(This picture might look familiar, Emily Redstone. Hope this is okay, I didn’t have any pics from the caves)

Afterwards we stopped at Olomouc, a moderately attractive Czech town that didn’t have a whole lot of attractions. While Daniella and Lucie, our coordinators, were talking to us, two drunken teenagers, one dressed as a nun and one dressed in the Borat swimsuit (if you don’t know what that is, google it….or maybe not) came up to us and started drunkenly hitting on Daniela and Lucie. Anyways, there was basically nothing to do in the town that we knew of so we ended up playing putt-putt, and then going out to the bars, where we realized to our delight that if we thought drinks in Prague was cheap, Oloumoc was even better.

The next day we were headed to the land of Freud and Mozart: Vienna. We were introduced to a city filled with museums, cafes, and imperial palaces, a city that felt more formal than Prague. We saw the Hofburg Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the very impressive Schonbrunn Palace, which was much like Versailles and was surrounded by hedge mazes and gardens.

I’ll talk more about Vienna later considering this was my first of two times going to this city, but I’ll just provide a short summary here. We had a dinner at an all-you-can eat Chinese buffet. It may not have been very Austrian, but I ate more plates of food than I thought possible. Later was a night out at a nearby club within walking distance from our hotel/hostel. The next day we went to a museum in the Hofburg Palace, which was interesting by the end but the beginning was basically a tour of the Hapsburg’s silverware collection, which was a little dull to say the least. However, Vienna is a great city and I’m glad I got the chance to see it again later in the semester.

Nations2Nations

This was the weekly Tuesday night party held at a different club each week where we would get down and boogie with students from all over Europe. It was a chance to meet new people, drink too much, and go to Art and Architecture the next morning hungover after two hours of sleep. And looking back on it, they were a reminder of just how carefree our days in Prague were, and how much I miss going clubbing on a weekly basis. And when discussing our time abroad with fellow ISA’ers, it was inevitable that Nations2Nations would come up somewhere in our conversation.

Also, “We Found Love” by Rihanna is played EVERYWHERE.

Classes

As far as workload goes, this was a much lighter workload than most other semesters. I know most people reading this probably don’t want to read too much about my classes so I’ll be as brief as possible.

Our semester started off with two weeks of Czech language class to prepare us for living in the Czech Republic. The Czech language is a Slavic language closely related to both Polish and Slovak, as well as a distant cousin of Russian. I was completely unfamiliar with the language starting off, and all I could recognize was that this language has a lot of consonants. Also, some words are ridiculously hard to pronounce. I still can’t really say the word for four, which is spelled like “ctyri.” So I wouldn’t exactly say I excelled in this class, and right now I can really only remember a few phrases, but knowing just a little bit of Czech came in handy plenty of times.

After the first two weeks we started our regular classes. I took a class on the Czech author Franz Kafka, where I learned that this guy had serious issues with his father, and was extremely pessimistic about life. His works are known for being dreamlike and disorienting, with characters in hopeless situations. Franz Kafka is the most famous author in the Czech Republic and a major part of their culture. Our professor seemed to be a lot like Franz Kafka in a lot of ways, and seemed to be very interested in our social lives, and would always tell us some of his best dating moves. He was also seemed to be particularly fascinated by Jorge, a friend of mine and another student in our program, who he described as “exotic”

Czech Film History was a class where we learned about…..the history of Czech film, as the title implies. It was interesting to see that Czechoslovakia, which became the Czech Republic, has been very influential in film, especially with the Czech New Wave. This class was harder than I expected but I did get to see some good films, as well as some bad films. My favorite Czech movie will always be Run, Waiter, Run, followed by Identity Card.

Art and Architecture of Prague may have been my favorite class, despite the struggles with Nations2Nations the night before. We would spend half the class going over architecture slideshows before going on walks around the city and touring museums. It made me appreciate the beauty of Prague even more than before, and the entertaining antics of our crazy professor made it even better. You never knew what he was going to say or do next.

We actually went through three different teachers for Communism and Religion, before finally having an American professor for the last two-thirds of the semester. It was a lot like a philosophy class and although it could drag on from time to time, I definitely learned alot.

Well this post has been much longer than I expected, but I promise you that you won’t have to wait another month to see another post from me. And I will definitely cover this more later on, but I just wanted to say this quickly. If you ever are faced with the opportunity to do something like I did, something adventurous, or something you never thought that you could do, take that opportunity. I swear you won’t regret it.

Spring Break Part Deux: Paris

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Well it was hard saying goodbye to Spain, especially since I was unsure of when I would return, but I was excited for my first trip to the “City of Lights.” I had been to France once on a high school trip where we stayed in the South of France, but I had never been to Paris before. I once had a Parisian exchange student stay at my house during high school (Augustin, if any of you remember him), but we didn’t exactly get along, so I was hoping to avoid any awkward encounters with him while I was here.

As I sat on the plane I could barely contain my excitement to finally be in this world famous destination. I couldn’t wait to eat the food, see the sights, and soak up some serious French culture. I arrived in Paris at nearly 11pm, and the only way I knew to get to the bed and breakfast I was staying at was by train, which unfortunately was closed at the time, so I asked for directions from a man who had been on my Granada flight. Racking my brains to remember everything I could from my one year of French, I eventually settled on “Vous Parlez-Anglais?” (Do you speak English?) To which he responded with a “yes.”

Reading the address I had written down, I asked if he knew where Rue 9 Emile Zola was. “Ah, Emile Zola!” he responded, before I could finish reading the address. “That’s right in the center of Paris. I’ll show you where to go!”

Feeling relieved that he knew where I needed to be, I hopped on the bus going straight to the Arc de Triomph. If I had finished reading the address, the man would have heard me say Vitry Sur-Seine, which unfortunately is not in the center of Paris.

While driving down the Champs-Elysee and seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up and the Arc de Triomph towering over me, it almost didn’t feel real that I was actually here. However, I knew I would have plenty of time to marvel at Paris, so once I was on the Paris metro I needed to figure out how to get to my hostel. I ran into a  few major mishaps, with the train I needed being closed for repairs.

However, with the help of several friendly French people, I eventually found the street where I thought I needed to be. I saw Rue Emile Zola, and continued with my two heavy bags to Rue 10 Emile Zola, which, strangely, was the last building before the River Seine. Unless my bed and breakfast was underwater, it was not here. I crossed the river, hoping it would be on the other side, but it was a completely different street. I then wandered the Paris streets hauling my bags, hoping desperately that I had somehow missed the address, until I finally mustered up the courage to ask for help.

I stopped a young French couple, who luckily spoke flawless English, where my hostel was. This time I was careful to include Vitry Sur-Seine in the description.

“Vitry Sur-Seine?” the man asked. “That’s not in Paris.”

…….wait, what?

“What do you mean it’s not in Paris?!” I asked, beginning to freak out.

“It’s a small town outside the city, about 10 kilometers from here,” the woman said.

“Well…..how do I get there?”

“The trains are all closed now, so your best bet is a cab,” said the woman.

“Is that going to be expensive? I asked.

“Oh yeah!” exclaimed the man. “Not a good first night in Paris, is it?”

“No,” I sighed. It was now after 2 am.

“Well good luck,” they said.

Merci. I walked off in the other direction for a few blocks before I heard a shout. I turned around to see these two had hailed me a cab.

After a bit of a language barrier and a half hour later, I was in the Paris suburbs. I gave most of the euros I had to my cab driver and rang the doorbell to what I hoped to be the right place. Apparently I had awakened the owner, and when he came down to let me in, he was not at all happy, but luckily this was the right place. My friends who were staying here with me were amazed I made it here alive, especially since my phone had been dead for the journey. I headed to bed, hoping the remainder of my stay would be trouble free. I also hoped that this would be the biggest inconvenience I would face in Europe. I could not have been more wrong.

It may not have been my biggest inconvenience in Europe, but it was definitely the biggest inconvenience I faced while in Paris. The rest of my stay went wonderfully. Three of us, Emily, Lauren, and myself, began our day at the Eiffel Tower, a monument that lived up to all the hype, in my opinion. It is just as massive and awe inspiring as you would imagine it to be, and can be seen from all over Paris.

We then met for a tour at Notre Dame where we saw many of the major sights of the city, but unfortunately no hunchbacks. Even though it sounds cliche, Paris is maybe the most beautiful city I had ever been in (other than Prague) with monuments and bistros on every corner, and the air was filled with the smell of crepes and the sound of accordion music.

After a traditional French lunch which was good but not nearly my best meal here, we went to the Louvre, which was free for students after a certain hour. The building itself was half the attraction, especially with the giant glass triangle in the middle of the courtyard, and the amount and quality of art here is just astonishing. We saw saw some of the major sites, like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, which is rather underwhelming, but my favorite was the Egyptian collection. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that some of these mummies were over 3000 years old.

Three of us then had a very tasty meal at a nearby restaurant, very close to to the Eiffel Tower. As I sat there with a delicious meal in my stomach and the sight of the Eiffel Tower glittering in the night sky, I decided I could get used to this French lifestyle.

The next day was the Musee D’Orsay, which was also very cool. Filled with Impressionist paintings, it was not as cool as the Louvre in my opinion, but I still definitely enjoyed it. Next I wandered around the city for awhile longer, exploring several different arrondisements before heading to Montmartre, a hilly, artsy neighborhood home to the Sacre Couer, a famous church overlooking Paris. It has one of the best views I’ve ever seen.

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I then ran into Emma, Renee, and Caitlin (did I mention I was the only guy on this trip?)while I was buying macarons and a baguette. They wanted to see the Moulin Rouge, so I brought my baguette over to see what all the fuss was about. It’s basically just a strip club with a red wind mill in front, but I decided it would be cool for all of us to take turns posing in front of this place holding my baguette, just to look extra French. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the neighborhood around here is very seedy, filled with sex shops and other scandalous businesses. At another strip club a man tried to get every passerby into his strip club. And I mean everyone. Even a woman wearing a burqa. We then decided this neighborhood was a bit too sketchy for our tastes so we went our separate ways before getting dinner later.

Most of Sunday we spent at Versailles, which is about a half hour outside the city. This is the lavish palace where Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette lived in luxury before being beheaded. This place is about as ornate as a palace can get, and like most other attractions in the city, it was free for international students. This helped a lot considering how expensive everything else was in this city.

The last day I spent exploring some more of the neighborhoods in Paris, before heading to the Pompidou, which is a very strange building looking to be a collection of pipes and plastic, a stark contrast to the more traditional Parisian architecture.

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The first floor I went to was filled with the type of modern art that causes most people to say “Hey, I could’ve done that!” Like those paintings that have a single spray of graffiti paint across the canvas and are supposed to symbolize the futility of life, or something like that. However, the next floor I went to was very interesting, and although I was pretty museum-ed out at this point, I’m glad I came here.

On the way to the airport is the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the famous Paris cemetery where so many famous people are buried, such as Jim Morrison from the Doors, the French singer Edith Piaf, and the unfortunately named philosopher Balzac. While wandering around the labyrinth of graves, I stumbled on a photoshoot where a topless woman posed on a grave dressed in black leather. Only in Paris, I thought.

A few hours later, I said “Au Revoir” to Paris (Not literally, but you get my drift) and boarded a flight back to Prague. In the coming weeks when people would ask me my favorite European destination other than Prague, I would usually tell them Paris. There’s a reason why this city is the world’s top tourist destination. This city, with its grand boulevards and buildings, is amazingly beautiful, and there’s enough to do here that you will never be bored. The food, although extremely expensive, is some of the best in the world, and the people were far friendlier than I expected. If it hadn’t been for the help of friendly French strangers, I might have never found my way to my hostel. I had high expectations before coming here, and Paris surpassed every one of them.

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Spring Break Part Uno: Espana

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As I post this, I am back in America. My days of traveling from country to country are over, at least for now. Looking back, this has been the greatest semester of my life, and although my time in Europe may be finished, my blog posts are not. Because of my extreme procrastination, I still have several more to write detailing my adventures in Europe, so stay tuned. The best is yet to come.
I struggled for weeks on where to go for my Spring Break (it’s such a hardship deciding whether or not to go to Spain or Italy for Spring Break, I don’t know how I did it). Ultimately I decided on Spain considering I had been to Italy five years before, and this would be my only chance to see Spain on this trip. So I found a cheap flight to Barcelona, where I would stay for a day before departing for Madrid to meet up with my roommate Campbell. After a few days in Madrid we would take a bus down to Granada, where Campbell’s friend Felipe was studying abroad. Then Paris, which will be my next blog post.
When I first arrived in Barcelona I was thrown off by the use of Catalan. Considering how awful my Spanish is, I was worried about whether or not I would be able to communicate using this, but having Catalan thrown in the mix really caught me off guard. However, most of the people I encountered in Barcelona spoke very good English (unlike the other cities in Spain) so I got along pretty well.
My first introduction to Spanish culture was the lunch I had, and I coulnd;t help but compare how different the cuisine was from what I had been used to. Spanish food seemed much lighter, with more fruits and vegetables and plenty of fish, and more wine than beer. This Mediterranean cusine was a nice change of pace from the heavy dumplings, ghoulash, and beer back in Prague.

Unfortunately, the weather was far too chilly for me to lay out on the beach, which I had been hoping to do, but I did get to explore Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a medieval labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways filled with churches shops, and monuments. Nearby this is one of the most famous buildings in Spain, the Sagrada Familia, an unusual looking cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi that appears to be made of melting wax. The cathedral is still a work in progress that has lasted almost 150 years.

Being in Barcelona by myself I was unsure of what I would do once night time came around (as far as nightlife goes, I already had a hostel lined up). Luckily, after grabbing some tapas, which I had never had before, there was a bar crawl hosted by the hostel, which went through several bars before finally dropping us off at Shoko, a nightclub which at first glance seemed pretty promising. Things only got better as I ventured further through the club I saw it opened up onto the beach. What followed was a fun first night in Spain, partying on the beach and in the club until 6 am, when the Barcelona metro system opened up again. I then had a leisurely morning of wandering around La Rambla and the scenic streets, before catching my bus to Madrid. As I’ve said in nearly every city I visited, I was sad to leave so soon, but I really did have a great time in Barcelona. It’s a fun town with great food, beaches, and some of the most unusual architecture of anywhere in the world. But now I was on to Madrid, and I couldn’t wait to see what Spain’s capital had in store for me.

The bus ride was seven hours and the only stop for dinner was at a roadside gas station, where I dined on the traditional Spanish delicacy of Doritos and Oreos (not an actual Spanish delicacy, if you couldn’t tell). It was Good Friday that day, and Madrid is known that day for having a festival where thousands of people parade through the streets in white hooded robes (which unfortunately appear very similar to the KKK uniforms) with crucifixes and other religious art. I missed all this Good Friday hysteria, and when I arrived there was no sign at all of the parade. I met up with my roomie (now former roomie) Campbell, who was meeting up with a friend here, but both of us were too tired to go out that night.

We started off the morning with a free tour of Madrid. No tour is really ever free, as most of these tours ask for tips at the end. However, it was interesting to see some of the major sites of Madrid, such as Puerta Sol, the main plaza, Palacio Real, or the royal palace, and many other historic buildings. I had heard that Spain’s economy was doing poorly, but our guide informed us that the unemployment rate was 24%, and nearly 50% for young people. As more news of their financial crisis has come to light, it seems the situation has only gotten worse recently.

The rest of our time in Madrid consisted of wandering around, as I do everywhere I go, and doing plenty of eating. I really loved the Spanish food and I ate tapas, paella, a squid sandwich, and drank plenty of red wine and sangria. Also, I had seen a few years back a show on the Travel Channel that featured Madrid. The only thing I remembered from that show was the desert Samantha Brown ate on the program: churros dipped in a cup of thick chocolate. I found the restaurant where these are served, Chocolateria San Gineria, and let’s just say they did not disappoint. They were delicious.

On Easter Sunday Campbell went to travel to Segovia with one of his friends from school (a small medieval town about an hour from Madrid), while I wandered through the sunny streets of Madrid, where everyone seemed to be sitting around with family members. It was here I began to feel a little lonely and miss everyone back in Omaha, but those feelings quickly went away as soon as I began eating a delicious meal. I guess food is all I need in certain situations. I also started to realize it would probably be many years before I was back in Madrid so I might as well enjoy my time here instead of moping around feeling homesick. Later that day my Catholic guilt kicked in and I realized I really should attend mass. So I went to my first mass in Europe, which was in Spanish of course.

Later on in Madrid, Campbell and I went through the El Prado, which is reputed to be one of the best art museums in the world, and although we tried to see as much as we could, I know we did not see nearly a quarter of what the El Prado had to offer. The nights out in Madrid were just as fun as the days touring, and they included a bar crawl which ended up in a club that felt straight out of a movie (I don’t know how else to describe it), and another more relaxing night drinking with some Irish people in our hostel.

Campbell and I left the next morning on a bus bound for Granada. I had a wonderful time in Madrid, and although it’s not quite as stunningly beautiful or unique looking as Barcelona, there is so much to see and do here and I felt that I really got a good sense of Spanish culture because I was here several days longer. Also, I found the people here to be extremely friendly and warm, even if they didn’t speak a single word of English.

After a drive through the mountains and hills of Andalucia, we arrived at our final Spanish destination, Granada. It was here Campbell was meeting up with a good friend from school, Felipe. Granada is a much smaller town than both Madrid and Barcelona, and a town that felt very authentically Spanish. The streets were all narrow and cobblestoned, stray cats were everywhere, and the air was filled with the sounds of flamenco music. Across from our hostel on top of a hill sits the Alhambra, one of the last Muslim fortresses in Europe, and definitely the top attraction in Granada. We were told to be there very early, so after a short night on the town meeting some of Felipe’s friends, we headed back to the hostel to prepare for a very early wake up.

After waking up at 6 am in the dark, we trekked up the hill to the imposing fortress. There was already a long line of people, even though it wasn’t even light out. For those that have never heard of the Alhambra, this was a relic of the days when the Muslims ruled Spain, so the architecture is much different from practically anything else in Europe. With the pools, palm trees, and geometric patterns and tiles, it was unlike any other structure I had seen in Europe and it was very distinctly Islamic. The most impressive part of the Alhambra was the Nasrid Palace, which was very well preserved and very impressive, and some of the reflecting pools and mosaics were almost perfectly intact. If you are ever in Granada this fortress is an absolute must-see.

The rest of my time in Granada was very enjoyable as well. The Alhambra seemed to be the main attraction in Granada, but I had a good time wandering around the town, meeting Felipe and his friends, and eating the tapas. Unlike in the rest of Spain, the tapas, which are basically small dishes served with a drink, are free with each drink purchase. So basically, if you order two or three drinks for around 6 euros total, you also get three plates of food as well. Not a bad deal.

Of all the countries I went to in Europe, Spain seemed to be the worst when it came to English-speakers. Although there were enough people who spoke a little English, most people seemed to only speak Spanish. However, if I had to go to a place where people spoke no English, it’s probably better it was Spain than a country like Hungary, because no matter how bad my Spanish is, I’m sure I can get by much better in Spanish than Hungarian.

It also made me want to learn Spanish when I got back to America (where I am now). Seeing how most of the people in Europe can speak at least two languages, it made me want to be able to communicate in a language other than English. Living in the United States, the most useful language would probably be Spanish. So I can definitely add another objective to my list of goals for the year.

Other than the Czech Republic of course, Spain was the country I spent the longest time in, and I feel I got a pretty good sense of the country after seeing three different cities. It’s a beautiful country with delicious food and friendly people, and I hope it recovers soon from its economic catastrophe.

On Thursday of that week, I said adios to Spain and bonjour to Paris, where I would spend the remainder of my Spring Break.

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To Berlin and Back

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Some of you ISA kids may be laughing at the fact that I am just now putting up my Berlin blog post. Yes, this was the ISA sponsored trip on St. Patricks Day and yes, this is two months later after our program has officially ended. I guess the reason for this delay has been a combination of good ole’ procrastination and a few major setbacks, several expected, one not so much. But more on that later. Its Berlin time now.
    We started with a very early wakeup call at around 5 or 6 am, followed by a four hour bus ride where I was asleep for the vast majority of the time. It used to be a challenge for me to fall asleep while in a bus or car, but now I seem to have trouble staying awake. Also, I’ve developed the habit of falling asleep on the person next to me, whether I know them or not. So if you find yourself beside me on either a road trip or a flight, be prepared.

Once we arrived in Berlin, our bus driver drove around to see some of the major sites in the city before dropping us off at the Brandenburg Gate, which stood between formerly communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. Nearby was the hotel where Michael Jackson famously hung Blanket from the balcony. I was desperate to find out where this hotel was, and little did I know I had walked right past within my first half hour in the city.
    Also near the gate were plenty of men dressed as American, British, and Soviet soldiers, all willing to pose in pictures for a small fee. We moved on to see several museums and ancient looking buildings, combined with a Soviet era tower that resembled a spaceship. Unlike Prague, Berlin was badly damaged during the war, so much of the city had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Although scars from the past are still visible, whats even more visible is that this is a thriving modern metropolis which deserves its place as the political and cultural capital of Germany.
    Next on our itinerary was the most famous of all Berlin sites, the Berlin Wall, which is now completely covered in paintings ranging from a pagoda to a picture of two male politicians making out. We spent about twenty minutes posing by the wall and admiring its history (but mostly posing in pictures), before heading to where we planned to spend the night. Our ISA coordinators, Lucie and Daniela, had told us we’d be staying in a place called Motel 1. Expecting some rundown, roadside dump, I was pleasantly surprised when we finally got there. I mean, this place was nice! Clean, modern, trendy, and with very comfortable beds, the people at Motel 1 should seriously consider renaming their establishment.
    After the group settled in the hotel and went their separate ways, my friends Emma, Jorge, and I decided to see the city by bike. With only one major complaint (the worst pasta in my life, as described in the Budapest blog post) biking was a great way to see the city and really take in all the sites such as the Berlinerdome and many old historical buildings. Emma had heard that “The Hunger Games” was premiering that night at a square called Potsdamer Platz, which was luckily right on our route home. We arrived to see the bright lights, crowds, and red carpet of the premiere, but unfortunately none of the actors and actresses were out yet. Although I wasn’t a hunger games fan at the time I definitely am now, although I still need to read the third book in the series, so please nobody spoil it for me. Seriously, I’ll be pissed if you do.
    The bike ride was followed by a night out at an Italian restaurant, which must have been pretty unremarkable because I can’t remember a thing about it. Once back at the hotel, I got ready to go out on the town. I had heard Berlin’s nightlife can be pretty crazy, so I was excited for a wild night clubbing. As I lay in bed waiting to go out, I started watching “Empire Strikes Back” on tv in German. The next thing I remember it was nine in the morning and time for breakfast. So basically, my crazy night in Berlin consisted of falling asleep at ten while watching “Star Wars.” I almost wish I was editing out some details of my crazy antics, but that is honestly all that happened.
    On the upside, I felt well rested and less hungover than about ninety percent of my group, so I was definitely ready to soak up some serious German culture. Lucie and Daniela then dropped us off at the German Historical Museum, which showcased German culture and history from ancient times to the modern era. Although the medieval section was certainly interesting, my favorite part was the World War II exhibit, which exhibited the darkest chapter of Germany’s history as honestly as possible. It struck me then that I was in the former capital of the Third Reich and only a few decades earlier I would have been deep in the heart of enemy territory.
    After the museum we didn’t have enough time to see anything else before our departure, so we sat in the grass near the Berlinerdome eating currywurst and pretzels. We were right next to Museum Island, and if I only had more time I would have visited the Pergamon Museum, which I hear is one of the coolest museums in Europe.
    Well it was time to head back to Prague, so we slowly made our way back to the bus. Just when I began thinking about how far Germany had come, I saw a very ugly site lying nearby. Someone had placed dozens of beer bottles in the grass in the shape of a swastika. I hope that this was only the work of some lone idiot, and I know this doesn’t show the attitude of the vast majority of Germans, but still, it was unfortunate to see, especially considering where we were and the destruction that had been caused in the not so distant past. Nevertheless, I returned to Prague with a very positive opinion of the city and I only wish I had more time to spend in Berlin.