Friday, November 20, 2009

What took you?!

So I know that all 6 of my followers are just dying to know why the heck it took me so long to detail our lovely fall break on the blog and here's the answer: Extreme fear of being unprepared for winter.

I lightly touched on just how freezing we were during most of the trip which made me realize that winter could be around the corner at any turn and I decided I wanted to be prepared. The first action this instigated (although not much of an excuse for not updating) was to go shopping, which, to say the least, is not my favorite thing in the world to do. Thankfully our endeavor was successful. I managed to find 2 sweaters, socks, and leather boots while Michael found a really nice black wool coat that looks pretty awesome on him. Maybe I'll manage to get a nice picture of him in it soon however, to spite our purchases, the weather has suddenly turned beautiful. We also took our usual in-town side trip to the covered market fore some delicious fruits and vegetables for dinner.

So with those successes under our metaphorical belts, I set out to replace Michael's winter had which had been eaten last year by moths. I had brought some nice blended wool and mohair yarn from home to make it with but after many many hours and roughly 2/3 of the way thorough the project, we decided that it was too loose. Alas, finding circular knitting needles in France is as easy as finding a needle in an extra large haystack but eventually after fumbling my way through the french language in multiple Phildar stores (wool stores), I finally found someone that carried them. After much discussion, they convinced me that the 80cm (almost 1 yard long) circular needles were
the right ones to faire le bonnet (make a hat)...which sounded odd to me, but I wasn't about to argue with them in my very limited french (sorry to those of you who don't have the slightest clue about circular knitting needle lengths). After getting home, realizing the needles were far too long, trying to convince Michael to find a way to cut and splice them, and moping around for awhile, I got on the computer and realized that the "magic loop" technique just might work; knitters, if you haven't seen it, check it out. After much fenangling, I was finally able to make it work. So the past couple of weeks have been spent knitting away every extra minute (and since I can't just knit, watching 2 seasons of Scrubs). I finally finished the hat yesterday and thankfully Michael seems to be very happy with it, which is great because I ran out of yarn to do anything else to it with.

Tomorrow morning we will be heading to Reims to check out their Christmas market. Bon week-end to everyone back home. We miss you all, especially with the Holiday season upon us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wake Up!

By: Sliimy
Although I got of out of the MTV scene years ago it became clear soon after moving that our only real hope of hearing English on French TV was to watch music videos. Sliimy immediately caught my eye with this original and colorful music video and not long after living here we were lucky enough to see him for free at a concert for the fête de la Mirabelle (we're pretty sure he wasn't wearing any pants during the performance). Anyway, this music video has become my go-to youtube video when I am feeling in the slightest bit down. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Finale: Copenhagen

To see photos corresponding to my last post, Fall Break Part III: Berlin, click HERE.
To see the photo album corresponding to this post, click HERE.

Before I get into the subject of this post I just wanted to point out something that was forgotten in the previous post.

The photo above was taken on the train ride from Prague to Berlin and somehow was missed when I was uploading photos into the appropriate post. While the image is partially out of focus and taken through a grimy train window, the blues and oranges and smoke somehow combined and it ended up being one of my favorite pictures from the trip. I just wanted to make sure that those of you who don't get a chance to check out the photo albums got to see it.

And now for the last push:
We really wanted to visit Copenhagen and some point while in Europe and since Michael's sister's boyfriend (confusing, I know) Jon is spending this semester of college there, and we already happened to be in that general area, what better time than this trip? So we hopped on yet another train bound for Denmark on Wednesday afternoon. The train ride was pretty long and boring except when our train was driven onto the bottom level of a ferry and crossed the water border between Germany and Denmark, that was pretty exciting. We did manage to make a friend in Albert on the last leg of the journey. He was probably close to my dad's age, a native German but had been living in Copenhagen for 3 decades. As per usual, we had no map of Copenhagen, no clue where our hostel was, and were getting in at 11:00pm, long after any tourist offices were closed. After looking at the address and phone number of the hostel he told us exactly what bus to take and where to get off.

The hostel was an experience that I hope to soon forget. In general, the Scandinavian countries are more expensive than the rest of Europe, which was a shock to us after being in Berlin and Prague, so the hostel was immediately more expensive than any of the others on the trip. But since we choose one of the "cheap" hostels in Copenhagen, it also wasn't very nice. There were 32 beds in each room (the most we had seen so far was 10) and although the room was split up with partial walls to mini 4-bed rooms, when half of the room is taken up by boisterous Australian girls those dividers weren't much  help. Secondly, it is apparently customary to charge extra in this part of the world for pillows and blankets. Each person is given one sheet (Michael had a fitted sheet while I got a flat) and that's it. And since we were being frugal and the hostel was already pricey, we refused to "rent" pillows or blankets (not to mention, they didn't think they would have enough blankets and pillows to go around even if we did want them), so the first night we spent freezing in our own separate beds. Michael even ended up sleeping under his fitted sheet with a sweater and pants on. The second night we disobeyed hostel ruled and slept together which was much, much warmer. The only positive side of the ordeal was the fact that the Aussies were up so late partying that I never had to fight anyone for the the one shower in the morning.

Thursday morning we were happy to be out of the hostel and managed to have one of the best pastries we've had since moving to Europe, a danish! Unfortunately it had been raining for the past 3 days of the trip and my non-waterproof warm shoes were currently soaked and the remaining pair were not very insulated. So despite the fact that it was beautiful and sunny out, it was still very cold, which left me kind of miserable for the day, fighting Michael to let me go inside any nearby public building so I could regain feeling in my feet. Without any word from Jon, or any inkling as to what we should see while in Copenhagen, we picked up a few maps and followed it along a self-guided walking tour through downtown.

 We were lucky that we just so happened to be walking through the palace area at noon and were able to see the legendary changing of the guards. Unfortuantely, the Queen was out-of-town, so we didn't get any music to accompany the routine.

The only famous person that I know from Copenhagen is Hans Christian Anderson so we had to visit the statue of the Little Mermaid, which happens to be one of my favorite all-time Disney movies.

After we finished our walking tour of the downtown area and unable to get a hold of Jon by phone we decided to do the walking tour of the Christiania area which was once a neighborhood primarily of naval barracks which emptied out after WWII. It has since been inhabited by squatters and is now self-proclaimed as an autonomous neighborhood. The wikipedia entry on Christiania is very interesting if you have a few minutes to spare; it's full of drug wars and clashes between the people and police.It was a very interesting walk though outlandish architecture and a park where vendors sold marijuana on card tables (unfortunately, no photos were allowed). I'm sure there were much more shady things going on in alleyways or other areas of the park but Michael and I aren't really the daring types so we stayed to the more heavily populated areas. The only picture we managed to get from that side of the city was this one looking over the water to the downtown area at sundown.

We finally managed to get a hold of Jon that evening only to find out that the e-mail I had sent 3 days prior  had never made it to him, most likely due to poor Wi-Fi reception at one of the hostels. Thankfully his host mom was incredibly gracious and said we were still welcome to come to dinner despite any prior notice. We made our way, with the help of Jon's directions, into the outskirts of Copenhagen on the tram system. He and his host mom met us at the last stop we drove another 10 minutes to their house. After the obligatory house tour we got to sit down and talk with Jon in anticipation of a home cooked meal after eating so many sausages. We were not disappointed, Jon's host mom made some incredible pork loin, roasted root veggies (which I had 3 servings of in an attempt to balance out our horrible vacation diets) and rice accompanied by white and red wine (another plus after a week of beer) with ice cream filled crêpes for dessert. Not only was the dinner wonderful but it was very nice to get the opportunity to talk not only to Jon but also to his host mom who is an incredibly sweet woman. Just as we were getting ready to leave we were able to meet his host dad who, unfortunately, had been out of town for work for the day but we were happy to at least have met him. And here is our memento from the evening, I am so short!

After saying goodbye to Jon, and expressing how much we all wished Michael's sister, Laura could have been there, we headed back to the hostel for another cold and noisy night. Originally we had planned to stay in Denmark for another day but upon realizing that our train ride back to Metz would be an entire day's endeavor (and me secretly longing for our bed back home), we decided to start back on Friday to allow ourselves the weekend to get back into Metz life before Michael had to go back to school.

After 12 hours on trains, and without any supplies for Friday night pizza, we were forced to make pizza pasta for dinner, which was sad but we had enough pizza through the week that it wasn't a big deal. Saturday (Halloween) we celebrated the holiday by finally buying me a mop (very festive, right? at least I no longer have to clean the floor Cinderella-style) and making this delicious pumpkin chili with bloody cocktails (blood orange orangina mixed with vodka).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fall Break Part III: Berlin

The photo above is of the Berlin central train station which is currently the largest train station in all of Europe and also the only train station in Europe to have train tracks running into it at right angles. You enter on the ground floor, which is a shopping area. The next floor down (below ground level) is a shopping area. The bottom floor, which is two floors below ground level is one of the train platforms. Then, above the ground floor is another train platform floor (it was creepy to have the trains going over you in a mainly glass building) where the trains run perpendicular to those on the bottom train level. It was in this train station that we arrived after the long train journey back along the river, through Dresden again then up to Berlin. We had roughly 24 hours in Berlin before we planned to catch our next train up to Copenhagen. Because of this I was worried that we wouldn't get much out of our time in Berlin. Thankfully I was proven wrong. In Dresden and Prague tours and admission prices were pretty exorbitant so if you wanted to learn the history of the city, you either had to pay top dollar for it then or do as we did and read all about the place in Wikipedia after coming home; at times I'm convinced that Michael is having an affair with Wikipedia, he will sit down and read for days on end after a trip -- which I've decided is probably a good thing after we've spent many days in much closer proximity to each other than is normal in this tiny apartment, but I digress. Berlin, unlike those cities, makes all of it's history very prominent and public. Our first night there, we spent a good 2 hours (freezing) reading walls with hundreds of posters documenting the rise and fall of Hitler and the subsequent rise and fall of the Soviet occupation of the city and country.

The Rick Steves Europe 2009 clued us into the fact that there are many companies that organize free walking tours of Berlin so after a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast (pictured above) we took full advantage of that little tip. If you are ever visiting Berlin, I urge you to find one of these tours. The guides work for tips (and are very animated and interesting because of this) and give you a very comprehensive 3-ish hour tour. I'm going to give you a brief overview of the main sites we visited while in Berlin both on our own that first night and with the tour guide the next day.

The first stop on our walking tour was of the Brandenberg Gate located on Pariser Platz. It was formerly one of many gates around the city and is now the only one remaining. Located to the left of this picture is the ugly bunker-style American embassy and to the right is the doubly ugly French embassy...the pictures aren't worth posting here.

The newly finished (2005) Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was next on our tour. The memorial was meant to be indivually interpreted by each visiter but at the same time, was meant to cause a feeling of confusion and unease. This picture was taken at the very edge of the memorial but as you can see in the distance, the paths between the concrete slabs dip down and the slabs get higher and highter. By the time we got to the middle, we 10 feet below street level with 20 ft of concrete towering over us. We heard somewhere (either Rick Steves or our tour guide) of a scandal when the memorial was getting it's final touches. It was found that the company hired to cover the slabs with a graffiti resistant glaze had been a major producer of the deadly gasses used to exterminate people in the concentration camps during the war. This lead to a lengthy and heated moral debate within the board of trustees but in the end they decided that they can't continue to shun everyone who wasn't on the right side of the war; not to mention the fact that many slabs were already coated in the glaze and would have to be destroyed and rebuilt if they voted against the company which would have cost many millions more. In the end, the concrete slabs were glazed for free by the company.

The parking lot pictured above doesn't look like much but was actually very important. While standing on this lot we were actually standing over the bunker where Hitler and his wife famously killed himself just before the soviets succeeded in taking Berlin.

This was the first view that we had of a remaining section of the Berlin wall. We were shocked at how thin it was but were later told that this was one of two walls that made up the border and the dangerous part was the space in between where guards and menacing dogs kept watch.

This is another daytime view of this section of wall. It is fenced in and will eventually be a part of a Museum exhibit. Most of the wall was destroyed by the people of Berlin just after the collapse but they managed to save a few small sections.

Through the city, the former path of the wall is marked out in these double cobblestones.

Very few buildings were left standing after WWII but those that did remain still bear the marks today.

Checkpoint Charlie was the only wall crossing checkpoint where allied forces and foreigners were allowed to cross the border between East and West Berlin. The poster in the photo shows an American soldier.

This mural was painted as a piece of socialist propaganda to show the German people just how well socialism works and how good life can be under a socialist government.

This mural was placed on the ground just in front of the mural above after the Soviet occupation to illustrate how bad the lives of the people actually were under the socialist government.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fall Break Part II: Prague

For a more detailed photographic tour of Prague, click HERE to view the accompanying photo album.

After our delicious sausages in Dresden we set off on our train to Prague. As it turns out, the river that we took so many pictures of in Dresden winds through the countryside, meets up with some other rivers, and eventually becomes the Vltava river in Prague. Because of this, the train ride down to Prague was absolutely beautiful. The weather was still as cloudy and rainy as it had been up until that point in the trip but the combination of the gray fall clouds, the brightly colored fall foliage and the vibrant green of the grass was enough to keep me happy. This was my second trip to Prague; Hamilton Gibson children's choir (for those of you not from Wellsboro, HG is a community theater and choir group) did a tour of Prague and the Czech countryside back in 2003 that my mom and I went on. We had an incredible time in Prague back then so I was very anxious to get back and show Michael how wonderful the city is.

We came into the north station of town which was a part of the city that I don't remember ever visiting in '03. The streets and even the train station showed the telltale signs of years under communist rule with the massive concrete buildings, dilapidated streets, graffiti everywhere and vacant lots overgrown with weeds and junk. We again had a bit of a hard time finding a detailed enough map to find our hostel but we eventually bought one from the tourist information office and made our way through more dilapidated, vacant streets to our hostel which happened to be very close by. The hostel was still in that very depressing neighborhood but as we neared the hostel (and neared the downtown area) attempts at improvements became more and more apparent. You could see where nicer, older styled architecture apartment building were being put in the vacant lots between the 1970's era concrete block buildings, which cheered me up a bit. The hostel itself was very nice and even had a fully equipped kitchen which to took advantage of while we stayed by buying breakfast supplies at a near by grocery store, saving us quite a bit of money! After getting some pointers from the receptionist we started what would become our twice daily 2 mile walk into and out of the city, which was not the prettiest of walks. The picture below was one of our first views of the river.We made our way, winding through the streets until we finally came up on Old Town Square which is the home of the Tyn Cathedral (shown below), Old Town Hall, and the Astronomical Clock which is also known as the Praha Orloj (originally built in 1410). "The Orloj is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; "The Walk of the Apostles", a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months." (taken from the wikipedia article on the Orloj). People start to gather in front of the clock at about 20 'till every hour to get a good spot for the moving spectacle. We happened to arrive at the square just a few minutes before the hour so we witnessed the moving of the clock ourselves before walking and exploring the streets of Old Town Prague by night. For dinner that night we decided to get some traditional Czech food which translates into: we decided to each eat a fist-sized rock. It's not that Czech food isn't good, it's just insanely hearty and heavy. I had a rich beef stew with the traditional and very dense boiled bread dumplings; the only veggies on the plate were the 3 or 4 slices of cooked onion in the stew. Michael managed to go a little (but not much) lighter with a spatzle, pork and saurkraut dish. We both enjoyed some cheap but good Czech beer to go along with the meal. Everything was tasty, but not amazing, although the final bill was something like $12 for the two of us (even after being scammed out of $2 with a 28% "tax") so we weren't complaining.

Day #2 in Prague we ventured to the other side of the river and explored the Senate building, Prague Castle, and St Vitus Cathedral (which is surrounded by the Castle). My memory may be skewed but because of the sudden jump in tourism, what was a dirt-cheap city when I visited 7 years ago seems to have gone up quite a bit in price. I don't remember tours being quite so pricey back when we were there with HG and since we were working a pretty small budget on this trip,
we didn't opt to tour any of the buildings. We did walk through the streets and royal gardens (where we took the photo below) and since the Cathedral was free, we went in, admired everything, and took some pictures. In the afternoon we hiked up to the next hill over to see the The Petřínská rozhledna (Petřín lookout tower) which was modeled after the Eiffel tower but is much smaller (only 60m high as opposed to la Tour Eiffel at 324m), however, since it is situated on top of a large hill, the tip of the tower is at the
same elevation as the Eiffel tower. We hiked around the hill a bit more and found an obscure statue of Mary with an incredible vista of the city, then headed down to the the Strahov Monastery for dinner and more beer which served as another flashback from my trip in 2003 when we sang at a Sunday mass in this very Monestary. Obviously we had to practice in the Monestary the day before and while there, we realized that they had a brewery within the Monestary which we thought was pretty interesting. Most of our group of friends were 16 or 17 during the trip but the drinking age in Czech Republic is 15 so that night a big group of us and our parents made a trip back to the Monestary for some late night drinks. Needless to say, it was pretty novel as a 16 year old to be able to legally drink with your parents, at least for us Americans. The Monastery was a wonderful memory from that original trip and I was very happy to have found it again and to be able to return for dinner. The beers were wonderful, and for a little less than $2 for a glass, they were well worth the price. For dinner Michael had chicken roasted in beer with braised red cabbage and bread dumplings while I had a crispy trout with fried onions and herbed potatoes; while still being traditionally Czech, this meal was much lighter and tastier than our first meal here.

Day #3 in Prague was spent mainly in the downtown or Old Town area of Prague. We wandered over to Wenceslas square where we admired, yet again, the sudden boom in tourism and consumerism in Prague. The photo below is the statue on the square of St. Wenceslas.Then as a contrast, we walked up to the Jewish area to see the old Synagogue, the beautiful architecture and the Jewish Cemetery which is so old (and so small, I guess) that is consists of 12 layers of graves. We also walked over the Charles Bridge where we saw the exact vendor that I bought an orange barret from back in 2003. We wandered a bit on the other side of the river and eventually found what I was looking for, the Lennon wall, once a normal city wall that was converted into a peaceful wall covered in Beatles inspired graffiti. It was a constant source of irritation to the communist regime in the late 1980's, repeatedly the wall was painted over only to have the graffiti reappear overnight. The wall looks nothing like it did just 7 years ago but since much of this trip was focused on the atrocities of the communist rule in this part of Europe, I was happy to re-visit this ever-changing memorial to peace. After exploring the bridge and taking some pretty twilight time pictures of the bridge and castle, Michael was determined to buy a little bottle of absinthe as a souvenir so we went from store to store until we found a bottle of Czech absinthe (which is pretty gross, for the record). And after a yummy pizza dinner and one more night in our awesome hostel, we hopped on another train on our way to Belgium.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fall Break Part I: Dresden

Photos to accompany this blog post can be found by clicking HERE.

After the obligatory 6-day after-trip waiting period (and after procrastinating by cleaning out the fridge and making an apple pie) I think I am finally ready to tackle Part I of this most-likely four part blog saga.

This year's fall break started off, as usual, with us refusing to plan anything. At roughly 10pm on Thursday night I made a it a point to make sure Michael at least booked our hostel for the next night, forcing us to at least figure out where we were heading the next day.
Friday morning, we hopped on a 8:45 train out of Metz and made our way (via 4 different trains) to Frankfurt by lunch time and to Dresden by 7pm. We were a little freaked out when we arrived in Dresden and realized that no-where in the train station did they give out or sell maps, making it pretty impossible to find our hostel. We did eventually find an info desk with free maps but it wasn't very helpful with fairly poor graphics and no street listings. As we walked out of the train station, we were absolutely shocked at the immense area of neon-lit stores and restaurants as we walked towards town. When we were invisioning Dresden (without much knowledge of the city's horrifying history), we thought of a beautiful old germanic town with old buildings and narrow streets so you can imagine our shock when we were, instead, greeted by streets wide enough to play a regulation football game in and a huge TJMaxx (TKMaxx in Germany) store. We walked, in the dark, in the general direction of downtown and eventually found a mall with a newspaper stand that sold maps. There was a comical few minutes where Michael and I struggled to find the street on the new map (which still had not street index but was more detailed than the free one). We had no luck locating it so we asked the german-speaking cashier (essentially in mime since neither of us has the slightest clue how to speak German) how to get to the street...she had no clue, but we eventually found the street with another map she pulled out with the streets indexed. Ok, so with that first disaster averted, we headed off in the direction of our hostel. We got to walk by a few notable historic buildings on the way including the Roman Catholic Church (pictured above) which sits right on the edge of the river. We managed to get lost a few times...they really didn't portray the confusion of Dresden's streets onto the map very well, but eventually we found our way. The hostel turned out to be very nice. We had booked our room through but apparently there was a computer malfunction and too many rooms had been booked, so instead of staying in the 8-bed dorm we had booked, we ended up getting a free upgrade to a private triple room (two twin beds and a sleeper couch). After getting settled and slightly warmed up, we asked the girl at the desk to direct us to a good Italian place for pizza. Toscano's was the name of the place and the pizza was absolutly awesome; we shared one with ham, mushrooms, salami and red peppers. After dinner we walked back to the hostel and pretty much passed out from exhaustion from that long day of traveling.

Friday morning we woke up to a damp and foggy day (pretty much the entire trip was like this) which was nice for not having to wear sunglasses, but not so nice for taking pretty pictures. We packed up our bags (we only brought one backpack each which fellow travelers found amazing) and headed into the city. Breakfast was found at a café/market type place; Michael had a strudel and coffee while I had my customary apple turnover and tea. They were good but not great, by we were starved by this point and didn't want to take the time to find a quaint little place to eat at.

On our walk into town, we were able to get more of a feel for what communism must have looked like when Dresden was under the command of the USSR. After almost every building in Dresden was destroyed by the British and American bombs during WWII, the communists rebuilt much of the city in their typical architectural style of square cement buildings.
We continued our walk through Dresden, passing over the same bridge and walking by the same Roman Catholic Church as we had the night before. We weren't quite sure what to do at this point. At this point, it was about 11am and we were planning to catch a 1:30 train into Prague which didn't leave us much time for a tour. So we spent the next couple of hours just wandering around the city and figuring out what we could of the city.
The church shown above is the rebuilt Dresdner Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). The church withstood the bombings of Feb 13, 1945 for 2 full days before catching on fire and collapsing, leaving the rubble blackened. The church was later rebuilt (completed in 2004) and the black stones in the exterior were recovered from the rubble and re-used in the new building.Anyone who has read this blog knows how much we love all of the interesting and delicious sausages that can be found in abundance in France, so it was only right that we have our first German sausages on this trip. We bought these babies after working up an appetite on our romp around the city at the market square in Dresden from the most crowded vendor there. I may not know much German but I can at least say "roastbrautwurst", hold up two fingers, then point to the mustard; it seemed to get the idea across well enough. While these sausages were the first of many enjoyed on our week-long journey, they were easily the best of the trip and quite possibly the best of our European lives.

Stay tuned for the next episode: Fall Break Part II: Prague.