Summer Travels (Weeks 48-51)

August has been a whirlwind. I finished out the first year of my master’s degree, and went on a 16 day vacation full of walking, hiking, and swimming. In total, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona.

Germany

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View from Berliner Dom

My trip started with a train ride to Berlin. The week was a little rainy, but I still enjoyed walking and seeing the sites, and hiding from the rain in museums. I stayed in Wombat’s City Hostel which was pretty comfortable, although my roommates were coming in and out at all hours as usual, so I didn’t get much sleep.

What struck me most in Berlin was how the history of WWII and the Cold War were woven into the fabric of the city. Monuments to those murdered during the Holocaust and tours through old bomb shelters clearly describe the atrocities of those times. Old pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed like art pieces at Checkpoint Charlie, covered in graffiti at the East Side Gallery, covered in gum at Potsdamer Platz, and pocked with bomb blasts in the Typography of Terror museum.

However, the monument that stuck with me the most was probably the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), not far from the Bradenburger Tor. From the street, it looks like a huge collection of unmarked tombs on uneven ground. From within, it’s a dark and claustrophobic forest of pale gray towers. It makes a clear statement against the crimes of war and genocide, and its prominent location in the city is a testament to Germany’s desire to learn from its painful past.

My visits to these monuments was, unfortunately, particularly timely, because the neo-Nazi Charlottesville attack happened in the US while I was in Berlin. The violence of the attack juxtaposed with these stark monuments that scream for peace and unity just underscores the absurdity of hate and terrorism (not that the emphasis was needed). Maybe if the US had more monuments to the courage of those our country has failed and those we have wronged, we would not be headed down a crooked path today.

On my last day in the region, I took a small trip to Potsdam, and walked around the city center and the Sanssouci Palace and gardens. It was a cloudy day, and the gardens were absolutely massive, so there were plenty of places I could relax without anyone else around. The next day I headed out to Dresden to spend one more day walking around the city center. Dresden was completely bombed out during the war, but it has been rebuilt, and is absolutely adorable. Both cities were worth a visit, but a day trip to each seemed like enough (although I didn’t go into any museums there).

Truthfully, by now, I had completely tired myself out from four straight days of nothing but walking through cities, and little sleep. It was a sunny day, so after I’d seen the main avenues of Dresden, I ended up crashing on some grass in a park and taking a short nap. No regrets.

Czech Republic

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Lovely hike in the Czech Republic

After Dresden, I finally made my way to the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to going there, since I would stay with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. He lived a little ways outside of Prague, which was perfect, because we were able to get away from the city for a while and enjoy some of the beautiful forests of Bohemia. He picked me up at the train station, and we began the business of catching up on what had happened in our lives since our last meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled around the countryside on old trains that rattled and clacked, past tiny stations with flowers in the windows, each one manned my a collection of human conductors. It was loud, and shaky, but somehow so charming nonetheless, and the trains seemed to run mostly on time (unlike in Germany). On the first day, we traveled to Křivoklát Castle, an old keep where the kings of Bohemia lived in medieval times.  Afterwards, we ate a tasty Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant, and hiked around some of the paths nearby to a small hill overlooking the river. I’m not sure this is a place I would have thought to travel to, had I been visiting Prague on my own, and I really enjoyed this trip.

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Křivoklát Castle

Although we spent most of our time getting a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city, of course we did see some of Prague as well. I spent a whole day on my own exploring the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and all the little, towers, and passageways of the city. One passageway was so narrow that it had a pedestrian stop light, because only one person could fit through at a time.

After Berlin, I didn’t feel like going into too many museums, but we did see the Mucha Museum (an art nouveau artist) together. It’s a small museum, but it would be hard to find such a large collection of his work in another city. Both days that I was in Prague, I ate Trdelník (Chimney Cake), which was like the Baumstriezel I had in Germany but with ice cream inside. If only this fried dough street food would spread to the US!

Wherever we went in the Czech Republic, my friend seemed to have something to say about the area, or the people, or the history. He told me about the railway system, the plants in the woods, the architecture, and the Czech nobility. He told me how Prague houses the Czech crown jewels and how during important events, seven important leaders open seven locks to retrieve the jewels and display them to the people. The crown itself may only be worn by a monarch of royal blood, and since the last monarch is dead, it may never be worn again.

My friend had plenty such stories, and this, combined with the beautiful medieval castles, cathedrals, and towers dotting the city, as well as the lush oak and birch woods we leisurely strolled through, made my whole time in the Czech Republic feel like a romp through fairyland.

Spain

It was with some reluctance that I left the charming Czech Republic for Barcelona, where I would split an AirBnB with some friends. I was reluctant to leave, not only because of how lovely my time in Bohemia had been, but also because just two days before, Barcelona, too, was the victim of a terrorist van attack that killed 13 or more, and left over a hundred injured. My friends and I were staying near La Rambla, where the attack happened.

Upon arrival, we saw huge collections of flowers, candles, and small gifts laid out all along the avenue honouring those who had been killed in this senseless act of violence. It was a sobering sight. There were also plenty of well-armed cops dotting the street, but less of a military presence than I had feared there would be. Overall, travel around the city wasn’t hampered too much by any restrictions, but there was definitely a somber feeling in certain areas.

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Gifts in remembrance of the La Rambla attack

Despite all this, in the end, my stay in Barcelona was no less lovely than my stay in the Czech Republic. The place we were at was smack dab in the middle of the historic Gothic Quarter, literally facing the huge Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. Below us was a square where street musicians would gather to play on their accordion, guitar, or violin in the evening. It was one like one of those things you see in the movies.

On one of the days, we met up with another local friend, who showed us around the city. We hit up hit up all the major sights and vantage points, including Montjuïc and the famous La Sagrada Familia, for which we had reserved tickets online (you should definitely reserve them because the line outside was really long otherwise).

The rest of the days were spent at the beaches in town and at Castelldefels, snorkling near Punta del Molar (we took a tour there with Barcelona Excursions, but I think it wouldn’t be that hard to get there on your own either), and otherwise just splashing around in the perfectly warm and clear Mediterranean sea, which was exactly what I needed during summer vacation!

We also ate some of the best food I have ever had. The creamiest paella, the freshest seafood, the most refreshing gazpacho, and the ham… my god… the ham. It tastes nutty and rich, nothing like what we call ham (it’s really quite wrong to use the same word in this context). I haven’t had food this good for months.

The best part in terms of food, was going to La Boqueria Market, and gathering up supplies for a picnic dinner. They’ve got everything there: a variety of otherworldly ham, various salami, cheeses of all sorts (including really good Catalonian goat cheeses), veggies, fruits (e.g. a kilo of fresh figs for just 2 euro), smoothies, baked bread, seafood, raw meat (including atypical meats like tripe and even brain), nuts and dried fruits, chocolate and other sweets, spices… I mean, it’s just crazy. Wandering through markets is one of my favorite things to do, and this market absolutely did not disappoint, although it was pretty pricey, of course.

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Ham at La Broqueria in Barcelona

Looking Ahead 

At the end of this long and wonderful vacation, I came back to Saarbrücken for just 1 crazy working day to wrap up everything I had to do, and the weekend to pack up my things and clean my apartment, before leaving for Italy. I’m still apprehensive about the move, because I have no idea how everything is gonna go down, and I don’t speak Italian. I’m particularly worried about figuring out how to set up the Internet, which I expect I will not have for the first few weeks. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll just have to figure out a way to muddle through it all.

Oh yea, I also just turned 30, so you know, I’m sort of re-evaluating my life’s decisions a lot at the moment. But I believe (and hope) that in the end, it will all have been worth it.

Costs

I planned this trip nearly at the last moment, and I ended up paying a lot, since tickets to everywhere were already fairly expensive. I also spent a lot while traveling, without giving the budget too much thought. Fortunately I saved a good amount back when I worked, so this sort of thing is possible occasionally, but I think I need to watch it more carefully once in Italy. I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a paid internship while I’m there as well.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €54 – clothes
  • €40 – phone (abnormally high since I used a lot of minutes this month)
  • €120 – dining out (not during the trip, since I didn’t buy groceries all month)
  • €1186 – everything for the trip (~200 trains, ~250 planes, ~350 accomodation)
  • €90 – train to Italy
  • Total: €1805
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Weeks 32 & 33

The last two weeks have just been a whirlwind of emotion, I guess. My family came to visit me in Europe, and although it started out great, there was definitely a theme of misfortune throughout much of it. One of the stress points was that I was the only one that spoke any languages, so I had to translate/coordinate things, while also trying to keep my family from panicking. Another stress point was my family’s near pathological avoidance of planning. But those were minor things. The hardest part to deal with was the theft in the second leg of the trip… but let me start from the beginning.

My family landed in Paris. The weather was great, we hit up all the big sights, went to a bunch of museums, and ate a lot of delicious food. Unfortunately, my husband got kind of sick the first couple days, so we didn’t see much of him (at least he had seen Paris with me earlier), but he did manage to join us near the end for a couple things he hadn’t seen before.

The next place we had on our itinerary was Switzerland. As mentioned, my family has some sort of strange aversion to finalizing plans. Thankfully, my mom had ordered accommodation for us near Paris, Geneva, and Munich for the trip, but she hadn’t planned on how to get from one place to the next. We actually weren’t even staying in Geneva or Munich itself for the second and third parts of the trip, but quite far away by public transport in both places, so my parents intended to rent a car once in Geneva and to use it for the rest of the trip.

We took a train from Paris to the small town we were staying at near Geneva (actually in France). The only affordable train that was available by the time we were making the booking would come in after 22:00. Like most small towns, this one didn’t really have a public transport system that late at night, which meant we ended up waiting around for a long time for 2 separate taxis to take us to the house we were staying at.

Then, the next day was completely wasted on trying to get that rental car. We had to split up into 2 groups. One group went to rent a car at a nearby place for the duration of our stay near Geneva, and the second to the Geneva airport (via 3 busses) to rent a different car to Munich. We had to do it this way because the rental car agencies that rented internationally had no cars available since we didn’t reserve ahead of time. Suffice it to say, this was a very stressful and frustrating day for everyone.

The day after, my big brother got sick, and I later caught it as well. (By the way, I’ve been sick 7 out of 8 months I’ve been in Europe.) I was actually expecting to get sick since my family had traveled on planes, so I wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. Also, one of the days, my husband ended up having to work so we didn’t see much of him again. But Switzerland, eastern France, and the Alps were beautiful, so we managed to enjoy our time there nonetheless.

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We had to leave quite late on our last day in Switzerland, because we had to do a lot of driving back and forth to drop off the old car and pick up the new one. On our way out, we stopped by Lausanne. My family went to the cathedral, and my husband and I went to visit with a friend.

This is when it all went to shit.

We were having a great time, right up until my big brother called to tell us that in the hour or so that they had been away from their car, it had gotten a window smashed. My husband’s and my backpacks were stolen. These were the only two things in the car cabin (since we didn’t have space for them in the trunk), and so they were the two things that were stolen. Thankfully, nothing else was taken, and everyone’s passports, money, and phones were safe as well. Also, thankfully my friend was willing to waste an entire night with us at the police to help explain the situation, since although I speak French, I would still have trouble with the whole process. Most importantly, no one was hurt.

However, we lost the rest of the day and night to this, and we had to rent a hotel nearby to stay the night as well. Even though it was just mine and my husband’s stuff, we lost a lot of expensive things to this theft, as well as a lot of small things that are just annoying to have to collect again. In my case, I lost my backpack, which had basically my whole life in it (I don’t have a lot with me in Europe). Here’s a summary of the major things:

  • Both of our house keys and my husband’s car keys (~$60 for me to replace, ~$800 for him to replace the electronic car key)
  • My husband’s expensive MacBook Pro (~$1700)
  • Much of my husbands collection of Netrunner cards, along with his winnings (promo cards, special tokens, etc.) from championships (~$350)
  • A brand new Nintendo Switch my husband had just gotten me as a gift with the new Zelda game (~$350)
  • My backpack which I had spent 6 months finding to be exactly right for my needs (~$100)
  • My work laptop that I just bought a few months ago (~$600)
  • A huge external hard drive with a bunch of pictures; thankfully I have the pictures backed up elsewhere (~$100)
  • Almost all of the clothes I own including my nice button up shirt, my travel towel, my toiletries (~$170 I guess)
  • My glasses case with a spare pair of glasses, and most of my glasses cleaning cloths (~$200)
  • Chargers for everything, including my only USB Type C to Type C for my phone and my US extension cord for all my appliances
  • All the little junk I carry in my backpack (e.g. a pocket knife, a combination lock for when I go to hostels, a pen+stylus, plug adapters, my key chains, etc.)
  • My Blizzard authenticator, so I guess I have to figure out how to cancel that
  • All the little souvenirs I had just bought from Paris (magnets/postcards)
  • Around 6 months worth of my thyroxine prescription meds that my husband had brought me from the US

So yea… after this, the vacation got less fun (and of course the two days after I come home are Easter vacation days in Germany, so I can’t even buy replacement clothes right away). I am very lucky that I was with my family during this time though, because they really helped me out. My big brother and dad generously generously offered me their laptops (I ended up taking my big brother’s). My mom bought me some clothes, my dad bought me some chargers and a cheapo backpack, I bought my husband a full collection of Netrunner cards… Basically, all the stuff will be replaced eventually.

After all that, what were we to do, but continue on with the plan? We drove to our AirBnB near Munich. We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, I climbed up to the top of a cliff to catch the sunset, we ate more amazing food, and eventually, we said our goodbyes.

It’s gonna sound weird to say, but despite all of that shit, I had a good vacation. Even though so many frustrating things happened, I didn’t realize how much I had missed my family, and of course my husband (who is still living in the US). And as for the stolen stuff, well, it’s just stuff.

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your passport/money/phone on you. This saved our bacon.
  • Don’t leave stuff in the car cabin. This makes you an easy target..
  • Don’t bring expensive stuff on trips. Then it hurts less to replace.
  • Leave a few pairs of shirts at home so you have clothes for when you return.
  • Have great friends and family. I don’t know how to do that, I just got lucky.

Costs:

  • rent – €225
  • replacing some of my things (should be in the mail soon) – ~$250
  • the gift of an entire Netrunner card collection for my husband – $350
  • souvenirs (most of them now stolen) – €33
  • transportation – €129
  • lockers to store stuff at the train station – €30
  • food (my family paid most of the time) – €60
  • cold medicine/cough drops – €8
  • Total: €404 and $600

Week 29

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This week I went to the French part of Switzerland to visit a friend. His town is near Lausanne, nestled in the middle of a stretch of vineyards, on the banks of Lac Léman, opposite the Alps. In the three days that I was there, we walked all over the place. We climbed up steep roads alongside vineyards on the hill overlooking the lake. We walked down tiny winding paths through the vines themselves. We climbed up towers overlooking the city, including to the very top of the cathedral in Lausanne, and we walked through the cobbled streets and shops down to the lake’s shore. Up and down and all around, I think we probably ended up walking around 15 miles a day, but it’s hard to judge. We also took the train to nearby towns, and out to other cities in Switzerland. All together, we visited the areas of Lausanne, Montreux, Fribourg, Bern, and Luzern.

This region has an ethereal beauty that can’t really be described or photographed– it’s something you have to see for yourself… The vines on the hills below, the spring flowers, the snow-clad faces of the Alps reflecting off the still waters of the lake… I know it’s a cliché to say, but it really takes your breath away.

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Costs

I spent a lot of money again, but actually less than I feared I would. Also, I didn’t really break the costs down that carefully while I was on vacation either.

  • €288 – trips (train tickets, food, souvenirs)
  • €26 – groceries
  • €29 – phone (used more data last month)
  • Total: €343

Weeks 27 & 28

The last couple weeks have not been great for travel. After the shenanigans last week, I’ve been nervous when thinking about having to take more trains. As it turns out, it’s not the trains I should have been worried about. More on that in a minute.

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Last week, a friend from the US came to Europe and we visited Copenhagen together. It was a lovely city that reminded me quite a bit of Portland, Oregon, which I do miss. From the warehouse of street food carts at Paperøen (which turns into a party at night) and the upscale version of the same at Torvehallerne, to the fine/homey dining and fancy beer culture, Copenhagen definitely shares Portland’s love of mixing together the up-scale with the everyman, the weird with the comfortable, the unique with the traditional. (Well, maybe Portland isn’t known for traditional, so in that I suppose they differ.) Both also have a great transportation system, and are also incredibly bike friendly (Copenhagen moreso in both cases, since it is a European city).

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Yea, I feel ya, lady.

However, unlike Portland, Copenhagen is just so damn cold! By March, Portland is usually experiencing that weird spring weather, where it can’t decide whether it wants to rain, hail, or be sunny. By contrast, Copenhagen was quite firmly in the grey, rainy, windy and near 0 degrees Celsius camp. I got through the cold by looking forward to flying immediately afterwards to Porto, where the weather promised to get up to 17 degrees C.

Long story short, go to Copenhagen for food, beer, coffee, gaming, adorable shops, cool castles, viking history, beautiful canals with coloured houses in Nyhavn (an idea apparently borrowed from Amsterdam by King Christian V), and a cool language (check out that vowel space) plus Elder Furthark runes for those of you who are linguists out there– but go during the summer! By the way, you can also visit Sweden, by taking a short train from the Copenhagen Airport to Malmø. Malmø is quite small and there isn’t much there, but if you want a bit of quiet, away from the bustle of the big city, it’s still nice for a half-day trip.

Our last day in Copenhagen, we met some friends for a hot coffee, had an amazingly unique and delicious dinner, and were headed home via the efficient transportation system, when I received an email from Ryanair, the budget airline I was taking to Porto in the morning.

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Malmø, Sweden.

My flight was cancelled.  Apparently, there was some sort of air traffic controller strike in France (is anyone surprised?), and no airlines could fly over France. So even though my plane was not landing in France, since it would have to fly over it, the flight was cancelled. Ryanair reimbursed me for my flight; however, I had already booked a non-refundable train ticket home from that vacation a few days later and an AirBnB. Plus, now I had to get transportation back home from Luxembourg in the morning. Ryanair refused to reimburse me for this (of course), so I am basically out approximately €70. I also don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity to go to Portugal while I am here. Probably not this year, since it’s already looking like it will be a very busy 5 months.

I considered taking the time and going somewhere else for a few days, but honestly, I actually do have a lot of work to get done, and coming home gives me a chance to crack down on some of it before a trip to Switzerland next week. It also gave me a chance to attend a few different gatherings to say bye to folks who are leaving this semester. I gotta say, Saarland is a bit meh, but we have a great group of people that I will really miss. It’s hard to believe I only have 4.5 months left here before I move to Italy… and I don’t speak a word of Italian yet, aaahh!

Costs

I spent a lot on fancy food during my travels so far. It’s only been two weeks, and I’m already projecting to be way over my ideal budget (I expect Switzerland will be quite expensive too). Hopefully, I can stay within my break even budget. That reminds me… I have to catch up on my HiWi job hours.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €21 – other medical expenses
  • €30 – phone (called my mom a lot this month)
  • €17 – bouldering (wish I knew why they let me in for cheaper one of the times)
  • €230 – dining out/drinks in Copenhagen
  • €86 – dining out/drinks in Köln
  • €20 – souvenirs
  • €24 – groceries
  • €2 – laundry
  • Total: €775