The Royal Blog Post

Once again this post is ridiculously late, but luckily I wrote most of this awhile back so my memories of my time in London are still very fresh. Anyways, I’m now two-thirds of the way done with my semester abroad, which is crazy to think about. Luckily I still have several more trips while I’m over here, including a trip to Vienna which starts much earlier tomorrow than I would like. But I’ll get to my Vienna trip later, and hopefully before Christmas. Right now I’m concentrating on my weekend in one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and important cities in the world: London.

Even though I’d never been to London before, I felt a certain sense of familiarity while in this city, a place filled with characters from my childhood. This is where Sherlock Holmes tracked down elusive criminals. where Shakespeare wrote his most famous plays,  and most importantly, where Harry Potter went to battle Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic. It has some of the most famous monuments in the world: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the Globe Theater, and it’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit.

The original intent of the trip was that my friend Jorge, who is in my program in Prague, wanted to go to London to see Chelsea play some team that I can’t really remember at the moment. I was interested in going along, but since I wasn’t a Chelsea fan at this time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pay a whole lot of pounds to see a soccer match. So I skipped the soccer ticket but found what I thought was a great deal on a flight to London flying out of Brno, a city two and a half hours away from Prague in the Czech Republic. We would fly with RyanAir into Stansted Airport, which is about an hour and a half away from London. It turns out with all the added bus fees we actually paid more than for a direct flight from Prague to Heathrow, and wasted a whole lot of times in buses as well. I guess that’s all part of traveling though, learning from your mistakes and realizing that sometimes things are cheap for a reason, like a flight on Ryanair.

The first night three of us: myself, Maddy, and Lauren, checked into the hostel Travel Joy Chelsea, which is located in an old wooden building right on the Thames. Since we got in so late we wanted to go out for at least a little bit so the day wouldn’t be wasted. So the hostel worker recommended we go to Leicester Square to see what was going on.

When we got to the square we were offered free entry to several different clubs and bars, and the first club we entered was nearly empty except for a group doing some sort of strange dance to electronic music. There was also a man who looked to be about 80-years old and dressed like a butler who came up to us, said “cheers,” and just stood there. This wasn’t really the atmosphere we were looking for so we decided to  take our free shots and head out. We walked around Leicester Square and then Piccadilly Circus for awhile, both of which were swarming with drunk tourists and drunk Brits alike. After walking around for a bit longer and meeting some friendly Irishman, we decided to quit while we were ahead and take the double decker bus back to the hostel. I have to say the highlight of my night was riding the double decker buses around London, and when taking these buses we always went straight to the top, no matter how short our voyage was.

The next day we walked around town, and followed a very useful itinerary sent to me by my cousin’s close friend (Kristen Abel if you are reading this, that itinerary was great). We started off at Westminster Abbey, saw that it was 14 pounds to go inside, and then settled on simply enjoying the buildings exteriors. This was where the royal wedding took place last April, and considering all of London was plastered with Will and Kate’s picture, this seemed to be the epicenter of all that, so of course there was plenty of royal wedding memorabilia to be had here. I didn’t feel the need to buy anything though, because I really don’t need a tea set with Prince William and Kate Middleton’s faces on them (and plus it would be such a pain to ship back to America).

We then continued our tour a few blocks further through St. James Park (and took the mandatory phone booth picture)

before finally making our way to Buckingham Palace. And Bloody Hell! that place was busy! I suppose what we saw was the changing of the guards, though it looked much different than I imagined it for some reason.

After that we made our way back to the Thames to eat some fish and chips. While sitting down to enjoy my traditional British food, a swarm of pigeons came along and surrounded me, including a pigeon with deformed claws that I assume was a mutant. I tried swatting and screaming at the pigeons but they still kept coming towards me, and once they were basically a foot from my fish I ran away from these winged freaks. Strangely, I had never felt afraid of pigeons until that day.

After the pigeon debacle, we continued over voyage along the Thames while appreciating the London architecture, both modern and ancient. I really liked how there are so many different styles of building in this city, and even plenty of really cool modern buildings that feel almost futuristic. London really seems to be a city not content to just rest on its past, but also looking towards the future, which include the Olympics that are only months away now.

We then made our way towards Abbey Road. Although it’s in a cool neighborhood, it’s basically just a crosswalk where people like to walk across mimicking the Beatles on their Abby Road album cover, which we attempted, but none of us really knew what we were doing. Next to the crosswalk is Abby Road studios, where the Beatles recorded many of the albums. Radiohead and Pink Floyd have also recorded here.

Unfortunately, I did not see Susan Boyle or any Harry Potter castmates as I had hoped, but I did meet up with two friends from back home, Catherine Foley and Ryan Wieczorek (who often goes by Wiz). It was great to see some familiar faces after being away from home for so long. When I saw them they told me that tomorrow they really wanted to eat fish and chips, see Abbey Road, and eat Indian food (which I had just eaten), and I was suddenly overcome with the feeling of deja vu, but we ended up doing all those things again and it was just as fun the second time around.

After a night on the town that ended when the bar we were drinking at closed at midnight, which was quite the shocker, we woke up the next morning and headed towards the London Eye. Unfortunately my camera was dead, but Catherine Foley took some good pictures, so if your Facebook friends with her check out her album. You get to see a great view of the city of London from above and you also get to see me looking pretty European in my plaid scarf and hipster glasses. Although the London Eye was pricey, like everything in this town, I thought it was worth the money and hey, you’re on vacation so why not?

When our loop around the Eye was finished our group parted ways, and many of the ISA kids went to the Chelsea vs. someone else soccer match, and the Omaha kids explored the town more. We started off with St. Paul’s Cathedral, famous for Princess Diana’s wedding and many other things I’m sure. It was strange actually, once you walk in the church you pay to cross a certain line, but you can basically see everything for free, which is what we did. After that we roamed around the city more and went to a British pub for lunch,  where a stag party was getting off to an early start (these are basically bachelor parties for British people).

There were three free museums right next to each other that we were deciding between: The Albert and Victoria, an art museum; The Museum of Science; and The Museum of Natural History. Since Cath and Wiz are spending the semester in Florence they had seen their fair share of art, so we eventually decided on the Museum of Natural History. There were plenty of cool exhibits here, with everything from dinosaurs to human reproduction (which we never made it to unfortunately), but very similar to the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum of Chicago.

Considering we were in London we wanted to check out their world famous department store, so us three amigos adventured through Harrod’s, a magical place where you can buy everything from haute couture pet clothes to giant chocolate eggs that I could literally fit inside and eat my way out of. There was also a bottle of liquor we saw that costs £29,999 pounds. I’m sure it tastes delicious and all but a bottle of Barton’s vodka would have the same effect for about £29,989 less.

An interesting fact I learned later (on Wikipedia of course) is that until a couple of years ago, Harrod’s was owned by Mohammed al-Fayed, whose son Dodi al-Fayed was dating Princess Diana and was killed alongside her in the car crash in 1997. Apparently, there is a memorial to both of them inside Harrod’s, which would have been interesting to see at the time.

Another interesting fact was that Arnold Schwarzennegger had visited Harrod’s cigar shop the day before. I was devastated (okay, maybe not devastated) but disappointed that he hadn’t shown up a day later, because even though I’ve never really considered myself a fan of “the Governator,” I’ve never actually ran into a celebrity before, so I’ll take what I can get. Anyways, Wiz and I bought two of the cheapest cigars available. I think we felt pretty cool buying those cigars but a few hours later after we lit up I was quickly reminded that I hate smoking cigars, so I chucked it down a sewer grate when it was only about half way done. So hopefully that’ll be the last cigar I’ll smoke for awhile.

Going to London was certainly a nice change of pace from Prague. It was a relief to be in an English-speaking country after so long. Although London is definitely European, there are many similarities between London and American cities like New York or Boston that I felt like I was back in America several times, a welcome feeling after being in Prague for so long. Also London is extremely diverse, and has people from all over the world, as opposed to just Europeans in most of the other cities I’ve visited.

There were certainly some downsides to this city, however. I would advise people to do their research before going out to bars and clubs in London. First of all, many pubs close at midnight or even early, and many of the clubs are prohibitively expensive (except for the tacky tourist clubs). Second of all, London is a huge city and if you find yourself miles away from your hostel or hotel it can be difficult to make your way back. Some other friends who went to London a few weeks later went out in a neighborhood called Camden Town, and apparently they didn’t run into any of the difficulties that we did. So go there, I guess.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the prices. I spent more on public transportation in one weekend here than I did for a three month pass in Prague. Also, dinner at a casual Indian restaurant cost over $30 a plate one night. There are certainly deals to be had, but in London it’s really important to pay attention to the exchange rate otherwise you may be spending far more than you planned.

My trip to London was fantastic and I can’t wait until my visit. Hopefully then I’ll have a lot more money, because this town will really take you to the cleaners, as they say. The amount of things to see and do here are astounding, and a weekend really doesn’t do this city justice. This quote I’m about to write is such a cliche, but it’s the best quote I’ve got right now. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”-Samuel Johnson (I’ve never heard of him either).

My next post will cover my day in Berlin, including seeing the Hunger Games Premiere and eating plenty of sausages.Image

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Budapest: Come Hungary, Leave Happy

A part of me thought before sitting down to write this post that I should just forget about it, move on to my posts about London, and then Berlin, but then I felt like I owed it to Budapest to share my experiences in the city. So here it is, way overdue. On an unrelated note, let me start off this post with the biggest news of the past month. My sister Susan is now engaged to Nat Kinsky, and we are all extremely happy to have Nat be part of the family. I’m sure this would be much more groundbreaking news if I had published this post weeks ago, but better late than never, as I sometimes say.Image 

Anyways I had a great time in Budapest, and this being my first time outside the Czech Republic since I arrived, it was great seeing another country of Europe. I was a little apprehensive about my first stay in a hostel, and although I never saw the movie Hostel, I assume it takes place in a hostel somewhere in Eastern Europe, and I don’t think things turned out too well for those guests.

Because of a good recommendation, we stayed at the Retox Party Hostel, whose tagline is “if you don’t understand the name, you probably shouldn’t stay here.” On their website they show walls covered in graffiti and say they are located in what seems like an abandoned concrete building. They also state that if you want somewhere clean and pleasant, you should go somewhere else (because who wants that?!). But no worries, the hostel was far less sketchy than I expected, and I would definitely recommend it to any students looking for somewhere cheap to stay in Budapest.

We got in pretty late, so all we really had time to do was put down our stuff and start partying. Similar to Prague, the nightlife in Budapest is really happening. The first night we went to a nearby bar that had karaoke in both English and Hungarian (I’m proud to say I sang “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias, and had all the ladies swooning).

The next morning after a fun night of karaoke several of us toured Europe’s largest synagogue, the name of which I currently cannot recall (I guess that happens after not blogging for a month). The synagogue was absolutely beautiful, and reminded me in many ways of a Catholic Church. Our tour guide was led by a man from New York with a thick Brooklyn accent. I remembered that under my jacket I had on one of my two Brooklyn shirts, which I was thrilled to show him. He seemed less amused, for some reason.

An interesting fact I learned during my tour of the synagogue was that during World War II this became the personal office of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi who played a large part in the Holocaust. It made my skin crawl to realize this place of prayer was used to plan the murder of millions of people. 

The rest of the day was spent seeing more of the city, including walking across the Danube, which is just as blue as you’d think it would be, and taking the tram up to see the Castle and several other historic sites on the Buda Side. There was a fantastic view from atop the hill where I could see all of the Pest side of the city, including the Hungarian Parliament Building pictured above, one of my favorite buildings in Europe.

A few members of the group decided that they would walk back to our hostel, while four of us decided to be lazy and take the bus. Unfortunately, we paid for our laziness. Literally. After a few people in our group spoke loudly about how they didn’t have bus tickets (never a good idea), the man behind us showed us his badge and asked us to get off the bus. There he told us that the fine for not having purchased a ticket is $80 (or like hundreds of thousands in hungarian money). Luckily, we were able to talk him down to $40, but I definitely learned my lesson the hard way about breaking the rules. More importantly, if you do break the rules, at least be subtle about it.

That night we went to a giant club called Morrison’s 2, which we found after roaming around the city for like over an hour. Describing a club we went to reminds me of those SNL skits featuring Stefan (If you haven’t seen these Youtube them immediately! Cause if you don’t, this next paragraph will seem like nonsense to you. Which it is). 

“So what would you recommend a family of four do looking for a fun weekend in Budapest?”

“Budapest’s hottest club is Morrison’s 2! This club has everything! Broken glass,  Smurfs, Hungarians in banana costumes, peasant women selling flowers, and old ladies with librarian glasses….

The last day there we walked around more of the city, went to a market that was definitely cool but definitely not worth the walk, and went to a museum called “House of Terror.” This museum documented the destruction caused in the last centuries by both the Nazis and Soviets. I realize it probably seems like everything I do or mention has to do with these two groups, but in this region of the world the terrors of living under oppressive regimes are not very far off in the past. Coincidentally we were there for the ten year anniversary of this museum, so there was a ceremony and outdoor festival commemorating this place. All the speeches were in Hungarian, which was unfortunate for me since my Hungarian is a little bit rusty. More importantly for us, however, the ten year anniversary meant free admission. At first I had no idea what was going on in this museum but gradually I got into it and really started to enjoy some of the exhibits I saw. Also, I got into a 5-minute conversation with a man who I believe was reminiscing about life under Stalin to me in Hungarian, which I responded to with many head nods and smiles. 

Afterwards was the spas, where I fully expecting to see hundreds of overweight speedo wearers lounging in the pool. And I was right….for the most part. There were certainly many speedo wearers in the crowd (one of my roommates included, I guess he just wanted to fit in), but regular swim suits were just as common. The main pool is surrounded on all sides by a grand yellow building, and housed in this building is a variety of thermal pools, saunas, and steam rooms. I made it through most of the building but parts of it were apparently filled with sulfur and smelled awful, so I didn’t make it all the way through. Anyways, this was a great opportunity to kick back and relax after a long day of trudging around the city.

That last night in Budapest we went out on a pub crawl, which I don’t remember much of (because this happened such a long time ago!), but I believe it was pretty fun. The next morning we were back on a bus to Prague and I left tired but glad I had experienced a weekend in Budapest. It was great to get out of Prague for awhile, and although I definitely had a great time while in Hungary I wasn’t itching to get back in quite the same way as when I left London. 

My only major complaint had to do with some of our restaurant experiences. While I enjoyed most of the meals I had there, one phenomenon which I hope never catches on in the United States is the idea that restaurants can let their food get cold, then throw it in the microwave as you order. Not trying to be a food diva here, but I can microwave food on my own, so why would I pay you to do that for me? I refused to eat at either of the places that threw their food into the microwave. A few weeks later in Berlin, while I was riding a bike around town, I felt hungrier than I had felt in a long time. So I stopped at the first place I saw, a little sandwich shop. Once again, the pasta was thrown into the microwave, but at this point I was too hungry to care. After the first bite, I was starting to think maybe I was overreacting about this whole “microwave” issue. After a few more bites, as my hunger slowly began to subside, I started to think this wasn’t exactly great pasta, but decent enough. A few bites later, it hit me: this was the worst pasta I’ve ever had in my life. Simply terrible. So looking back on Budapest, I’m glad I didn’t eat any of the microwaved food and I will continue to not order anything from a restaurant that is cooked in the microwave. 

Well, sorry for the long, long, long delay. I should get some more posts out this week, including my trips to London and Berlin. I might even throw in a bonus post if I have the time.

 

Night at the Opera

On Friday night I had a chance to soak up some serious culture with a visit to the opera. The show our ISA program attended was Rusalka, a story very similar to The Little Mermaid but in Czech and with fewer seashell bikinis.

The National Theater of Prague, where the opera took place, is a very beautiful and ornately decorated building, with an interior and roof covered in more gold than anywhere I’ve been outside of the Vatican.The seats were very small and cramped, probably perfect for the midgets that must have inhabited Prague back in the 1800’s. Once we were in the theater and the doors were closed nobody was allowed in or out of the theater to make sure the audience was completely silent for the opera singers. With such strict rules on noise, I was terrified to realize my crappy $25 Vodafone had the sound turned up full volume. I was too afraid to turn it off in fear it would make a beeping noise. Even though only about five people in the world even know my new number, and I had not once received a call on this phone, I was still in fear my phone would ring and I would be thrown out of the theater by the 80-year usher standing nearby. Luckily, my phone never went off, and I was able to have an interesting cultural experience, even if the show ran about an hour longer than I would have liked.

On another note. I finalized some travel plans this week. From Thursday through Sunday I will be in Budapest with a large group of people from my program. I’m definitely excited to see the sights of Budapest and to experience a new city and country. I also have a clever pun planned for my next blog post that I can’t wait to unleash on all of you. There’s not a whole lot I know about Budapest, but I’ve heard it’s an awesome places from several reliable sources, including my sister Susan.

Also, I’ve booked a ticket to London with a smaller group from March 8-11. This is a city I’ve always wanted to see, and I’m hoping I’ll run into some British celebrities while I’m there (aka the cast of Harry Potter and maybe Susan Boyle). One thing I’m not looking forward to is London’s famously high prices, which should come as a shock after being in fairly cheap Prague for so long.

As far as my other travel plans, I plan on attending almost all of the ISA sponsored trips, such as Berlin, Vienna, and trips to several cool towns within the Czech Republic. I’d also like to see Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Istanbul, and Krakow, but we’ll see where I actually end up.

For the most part it’s been a pretty quiet week here. We (thankfully) finished up our two weeks of Czech lessons. I feel like I ended up doing alright in the class, though my knowledge of Czech is still minimal at best. Next Monday my regular classes start, and I’ll be taking Czech Film History, Kafka’s World, Communism and Religion, and Art and Architecture of Prague. Only 12 credits, so I should have plenty of time to explore Europe in my spare time.

Surprisingly, I feel like I blend in pretty well in this city. Whenever someone on the street approaches me they instantly speak to me in Czech, so it’s good that I don’t look too much like a tourist. I was nervous that my bright yellow coat straight from the 90’s (formerly owned by my sister Liz) might make me stick out like a sore thumb for pickpocketers and gypsies, but so far that hasn’t been too much of a problem.

I also am beginning to understand Prague and it’s metro system much better now, and I’m happy to say I haven’t gotten seriously lost in almost a week (key word=seriously). On the bright side, I’m sure there are much worse places to be lost in than Prague, and it’s always an adventure roaming the twisted, cobblestone covered streets of this city. Well, unless it’s dark, ten degrees, and you’re carrying an assortment of household items from IKEA. Speaking of IKEA, that place is crazy.

Well folks, that’s all for this post. Tune in next week where I’ll recap my first week of classes and my trip to Budapest.

Czeching Out a New Country

I realize making puns with the word “Czech” is way overdone, so I’ll try my best to stop. No promises though. Anyways, I have now been in the Czech Republic for well over a week now, and so far I’ve had an amazing time. The city is beautiful, and my apartment is in a great location near Old Town Square. Simply walking around the neighborhood, and around Prague, has been one of my favorite activities while I’ve been here. On every corner it seems there is a church or tower hundreds of years older than the United States. It’s really a miracle that everything here has been so well preserved, especially when you consider this city has survived both the Nazis and the Soviets in this century alone.
We started off our week with orientation and a tour of the city. Following that we had our first of two weeks of Czech language lessons. This is definitely a difficult language to learn, and although I’m not expecting to master it while I’m here, I would like to get by in a shop or restaurant as easily as possible by knowing a few key phrases.
We have also had several different excursions with ISA and Charles University, including a trip to Prague Castle, a trip to a traditional Czech restaurant, and a trip to the medieval village of Kutna Hora. If you’re Facebook friends with me, which I’m guessing you probably are, czech out (my bad!) some of my pics. There was a church we went to decorated entirely in the bones of hundreds of people dug up from a mass grave. It was a really fascinating yet very chilling experience to be among so many skeletons.
Speaking of chilling, it’s COLD here. Very cold, and to make matters worse I’m outside much more than I would be in America, making me notice the frigid weather even more. So far I’ve woken up twice to see Prague covered in snow, and although it’s very beautiful to see at first, by the end of the day the snow turns into black muck from the cars and pedestrians,and becomes more of a nuisance than anything else.
One thing that has taken some getting used to here is the customer service. I realize there is the language barrier and a difference in culture, so this is not really a complaint as much as it a general comment on life here. For the most part, store attendents and waiters are much more reserved and less likely to smile (along with most Czech people for that matter). They are also less likely to go out of their way to help you out. Although most people here have been relatively polite, (With exceptions: Seriously, if you’re ever in the Vodafone store by Wenceslaus Square avoid the blonde lady at all costs), it’s a far cry from the helpful smiles in every aisle back at HyVee.
A few more comments on life here: For the most part, food and other essentials (like beer) are pretty cheap, and you can buy a sandwich and a drink here for two dollars in some cases. However, in restaurants you almost always have to pay if you want water (the phrase that beer here is cheaper than water is actually true), and in grocery stores you have to buy your grocery bags, so I now have a bag from IKEA that I take with me to the grocery store, usually either Alberts or Tesco.
Also, I’m really getting used to taking the metro everyday and walking around everywhere, and I actually prefer this to driving (although I do miss the Batchmobile).
It’s been an amazing first week here in Prague. Hope everything is going well in America (or wherever you are) and I’ll do my best to keep you all updated on my European adventures.

Pragueward Bound

To be honest, I’m already in Prague. However, I had already started this post about me packing and getting ready for my semester abroad,and I just didn’t finish it in time.  So instead, we’re just gonna pretend like I haven’t gotten there yet and the next wall post will be my first impressions of the city. Alright, now with that out of the way, welcome to my blog, where I’ll be posting updates on my life, travels, classes, and adventures in and around Prague, hopefully on a weekly or biweekly basis.

For the past month and a half I have been lounging around Omaha awaiting my Prague departure. I promised you all I would develop a sweet talent, but I’m sorry to disappoint. Right now I am not a magician, piano player, pickpocket, knitter, or a bartender, and I did not further develop my already very impressive butchering talents. The best I can give you is that I ran a half marathon  in Austin, Texas, with a time that I was very pleased with.

My time in Austin was the perfect end to my last days in America, a trip that was filled with more crepes, running, and family karaoke than you can shake a stick at. Ever since then I’ve been packing and trying desperately to finish everything I had put off the past month (including writing this blog). But the time has finally arrived, and there is no turning back now. It is starting to really kick in that for the next four months, I will be living in Prague, Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia as some of the older generation still calls it). Many people have asked why I choose Prague as my destination abroad. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, Prague is located in the center of Europe so there would be plenty of opportunity for weekend trips to visit friends and see cities such as Berlin, Krakow, Vienna, and Budapest, all within a few hours train ride. Second, I have  a fascination with Eastern Europe and from all the possible destinations in this part of the world Prague seemed like the best option. Third, after looking through several guide books of Prague this just seemed like a city I would definitely enjoy. So here I am, sitting in the Chicago airport waiting anxiously for my flight to Munich to board. I have no idea what the next four months have in store for me (okay, I have some idea), but I’m fully expecting to have an amazing time in my adventures overseas.