Sunday, July 3, 2011

London - Please Mind the Gap

I haven't been staying up to date on blogging about this trip. Finding time to write and an internet connection were both difficult at times. So instead, as they say on the London tube, "please mind the gap". You can read about the second half of the trip all at once now though! And old posts have been updated with photos from a real camera, not just the dark ones from a camera phone.

June 26-29

London was another great city. I'm going to stop saying "it's my favorite city!", because I have about 5 favorites by now. London is huge and I didn't get to do barely half the things I wanted to.  After a month in the EU, I found myself automatically reading the last paragraph on any sign (which is usually the English one). Oh wait, everything is in English here again! It does look a little strange now. They also automatically give you plastic bags for your groceries here, something else I'd forgotten about. I never quite got used to London traffic patterns though. To help out tourists like me, they tell you which direction to look when crossing the street.

We arrived in London during a break in the downpours they'd been having, just in time for a heat wave. Since our hostel near Hyde Park wasn't ready for us when we arrived, we went for a walk around the city and stopped to play frisbee in the Buckingham Palace gardens. The queen was unfortunately not at home, so she couldn't play with us. After putting our feet in the fountain outside of Buckingham Palace to cool off, we walked along the Thames to see the London Eye, Big Ben, and have a picnic outside Westminster Abbey.

Triangle sandwiches from Tesco quickly became a staple meal in London. Walking across the Tower Bridge was our last adventure in London that evening. After waking up at 2am, running around the park, and then walking through London in the 32 degree weather, we were sufficiently worn out at the end of the night.

The next morning I said goodbye to Gerst, Noah, Nick and Chelsea who headed back to the States, and then ventured off to explore London on my own for 2 more days.  Because the free walking tour I went on in Berlin was so good, I decided to try the London one run by the same company. We started by watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Or rather, I watched the band and the guards march into the palace grounds, and the cavalry rode by, but then I could not see over the heads people in front of the fence who had arrived 2 hours earlier than me. Though being short makes it difficult to see in crowds, it still gives me enough other advantages while travelling.

Our tour guide, Dave, told us there are several ways to get into Buckingham Palace. First, you can marry into the family (Kate did it, so it isn't impossible). Second, you can visit 20 of the 700+ rooms in August that the Queen opens up while she goes on holiday. Third, you can do something really awesome and be invited for tea and perhaps be knighted. But the easiest way is probably just to break in. In the 80's an Irishman named Michael Fagin broke into the palace. Twice. He triggered so many alarms with one window, that the security guard thought the system had malfunctioned, and turned it off. After drinking a bottle of expensive wine, Fagin found his way into the queen's bedroom, where they chatted for awhile. When he asked for a cigarette, she was able to tell him that she didn't smoke, but believed her footman did, and then was finally able to alert the footman that there was an intruder in the palace. The palace was public property at the time, so Fagin could only be charged for the wine, not trespassing. Another story was about a group of German tourists who wanted to go camping in Hyde Park. They were a little bit lost and pitched a tent on the grounds of Buckingham palace instead. In 2004 a protestor dressed as Batman broke into the palace and perched on the balcony for a few hours before police were able to convince him to come down. The rest of the tour was full of other fun stories like these.

Many things in London are expensive to visit. For example, it costs 19£ to visit the Tower of London. With the poor value of the dollar right now, thats roughly $30 to visit a museum. For another 15£, I could go inside Westminster Abbey. Instead, I decided to go to an evening church service in Westminster. I may not have been able to spend as much time exploring the abbey as I'd like, but I heard a beautiful choir service, and still saw many of the famous tombs there (such as Sir Isaac Newton's).  Luckily many of the museums in London are also free, like the Victoria and Albert museum, where I spent my last afternoon in London, avoiding the rain.

I watched a ballet school performance outside St. Paul's Cathedral earlier in the day (I didn't get to feed the birds on the steps of St. Pauls because all the people and impending rain seemed to scare away the birds).

Just as I was heading back to the tube station, it began to pour. So one of my souvenirs from London is a new umbrella.

The area around Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Trafalgar Square was one of my favorite areas to explore.

There are so many nice little shops there. I managed to stumble across one street that was only filled with bookstores! There were many art galleries (I've been purchasing pieces of art in each country visited on this trip to decorate my new apartment) and the Covent Garden Market was filled with antiques the day I went.

I also found the Lush store there (they sell locally made soaps and bath products) and Lush and Moosejaw are two stores that always have the best employees, so of course I had to stop in. They have a new product out called tooth tabs, a type of solid toothpaste. The flavor I tried is called ultrablast - mint, lavender, and wasabi. The description was too interesting not to try it. Lush is an especially nice place to visit after walking around on a hot day, because they wash your hands with all sorts of bath salts and soaps and then insist that you try their lotions. I walked out feeling and smelling refreshed.  In search of the TKTS booth and a bathroom, I also stumbled across Kings College, where my best friend will be studying next year. I'm sufficiently jealous.

London newspapers are all about the Olympics, Wimbledon, and the royal family right now. There is a Metro newspaper published twice daily for you to read on the morning and evening commutes.

Many Londoners are quite upset about the recent round of olympic ticket distributions, claiming the lack of a live computer system as applications are being processed is unfair. A good portion of the tube is under construction at the moment to improve the transportation network before next year, and the popular opinion polls in the papers all say they don't believe the transportation network will be able to handle the influx of visitors anyway.  Kate and Wills made a surprise appearance in the Royal Box at Wimbledon to watch Andy Murray play on the second day I was in London. That was the big news of the evening. Had I known how to get Wimbledon tickets, I probably would have been there too.  If Murray had made it to the finals, he would have been the first British man to do so in 73 years. (Since I'm writing this on the day of the Wimbledon finals, I can tell you that he is not playing today).

On my last night in London, I went to see a West End show. I tried to get tickets for War Horse and Les Mis, but since War Horse is the most popular show in London right now, and Les Mis has a new cast, both are sold out for the next three weeks. So I saw Billy Elliot, and was very impressed.  It was a great last evening in Europe.

See you back on the other side of the pond!


June 24-25

An afternoon train from Vienna brought me to München just in time to meet Nick, Noah, Gerst, and Chelsea again for a traditional German dinner. The restaurant was one of the only ones we have been to as a group that did not have any English descriptions (some of these are often amusing because they are so literal, others translate to things we've still never heard of - like "rucola" in Italian, which translates to "rocket" in English. "What do you mean you've never heard of rocket?" was the response recieved after asking our waiter about it. Its a leafy lettuce like plant with a strong after taste, in case you also didn't know). I did my best to help translate main dishes at the German restaurant, and in the end we ended up with schnitzel, wurst, cordon bleu from schwein, and some very good kasespätzel. Another nice surprise in Germany was how cheap the grocery stores are. Beer is cheaper than water, and Apfelschorle (fizzy apple juice) was only 25 cents! This is very exciting when you consider that I've paid 3 euro for a coke or bottle of juice in several places.

Munich is the only place I'm going on this trip that I've already been to before. I was surprised at how familiar some of the streets around Marienplatz and the hauptbahnhof were, since I only spent a few days here last time. I have very vivid memories of being confused by the S-bahn doors that open on both sides of the train (unlike all the other metro systems), trying to figure out the word for "map" at the kiosk upstairs from the trains (just saying "map" would have gotten us farther than all the words we made up), and looking for books at the store across from the glockenspiel. All of these are only little things, but ones I had forgotten about until I came back. Memory triggers are interesting, I'd like to learn more about them. I wonder which parts of this trip will be the most clear memories in later years.

The next day we visited Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany. I was also here six years ago, and the experience was just as powerful this time. Maybe even more so after knowing more about the haulocaust and trying to imagine what those imprisoned here went through, instead of only absorbing facts. It is certainly a place that needs to be visited more than once to fully appreciate the content of the museum and memorial experience. Partly because of the amount of content exhibited, and partly because of the emotional and mental toll it takes to try to understand it. Most of the historical places I've visited on this trip have been several hundred years old. They are intersting to learn about, but difficult to relate to in many ways. Dachau is not old. It is easy to imagine what was going on in the world outside the camp walls, easy to imagine the people. The things that happened inside are unimaginable, how people could possibly be so cruel to other people, and how easily they were able to get away with it. Knowing that this all happened recently, within the last century, and that similar crimes are being committed in other parts of the world even today is frightening.

This time I forced myself to visit the crematorium and the gas chambers. I couldn't go in six years ago. Even though it is only an empty building now, it was still a chilling experience and made me feel slightly sick. I've heard people say that Germans try to hide their past. After visiting Berlin and seeing Dachau again, I don't think that's true. Their history is built into the cities and towns, in plain view. Remnants of the wars are seen in the "Never Forget" inscriptions, in the many memorials, large and small. Differences between the East and West are still visible, in the architecture and language (Munich is much prettier than Berlin. In east Berlin I only heard German, but heard many languages in Munich - both are large cities that attract tourists). The continued focus on reunification is seen in the "Deutschland - Wir sind ein Volk" banners on Museuminsel in Berlin. Germans appear to be very aware of their history.

After coming back from Dachau, I went shopping in Marienplatz, something much more light hearted. My backpack has gained almost 4 kilos between Munich and London (at least 1 of those kilos is in Milka bars). Souvenirs are much more appealing when I know I only have to carry them around one more city.

From Munich our plan was to fly Ryanair to London. Ryanair is a budget airline that flys out of smaller airports. We knew we wouldn't be leaving from the main Munich airport, but didn't realize until a day before the flight that the Memmingen airport, where we needed to be, is a 2 hr train ride away. And with a 9:20 flight, that means we had to take the 2:20 am S-bahn to be able to catch our train. Oops. Nick nicely shared his headphones and let me watch some episodes of 30 Rock on that very early train. And the 5 of us managed to snag one of the "Harry Potter cars" for the ride and I finally got to listen to the train song (Purple Bottle by Animal Collective) while actually riding on a train. Get that, woo!


June 22-24
Now that I've been to Vienna, I can understand why people love it. In each new place I go, I like to spend time just walking arond the city. Vienna is a beautiful place to do that. I followed a walking tour plan that I found in the internet one afternoon. Not only did it lead me to the most famous buildings in Vienna, but to the Sacher Cafe (home of the original Sacher torte, a very rich, very good chocolate cake), and the Cafe Demel (a classy kaffee haus).

Vienna was the center of the Habsburg empire, so I learned a lot about Habsburgs from visiting Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hofsberg Imperial Apartments and silver collections, and the Capuchin Crypts. They married off their children to gain political advantages, and ruled a significant portion of Europe for some time.

One night I went to the Staatsoper and saw a performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at the Wien Staatsoper. I found yet another use for my scarf here - reserving stehplätze at the opera. It's one of the most used items I've brought with me - not only does it keep away wind when it's cold out, but also makes a good hat in the rain, a towel to dry your face after the rain (when I forget it's in my bag), a cardigan in the evening, a skirt for visiting churches and cathedrals when wearing shorts, and it makes a boring outfit a little classier when I'm trying to blend in with those stylish Europeans. Anyway, the opera was very good.

Another night, I went to a concert in Peterskirche. The concert was a collection of Mozart, Handel, Schubert, and Hadyn pieces performed by an organist, a baritone, and a mezzo soprano. The performers were behind the audience in the balcony of the church, hidden behind the organ. Without being able to see the performers, it let me experience the concert more with other senses. Sitting on the wooden pews allows you to feel the vibrations, especially from the organ, and without seeing the performers, I was more aware of the sound and how it travels. The baritone voice completely fills the lower portion of the church, while the soprano voice soared to the top of the cupola to fill the entire ceiling. It was a fantastic way to experience music, and the rendition of Ave Maria was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

Vienna also reminded me how much I appreciate simple things like washing machines and dryers. I like having a whole bag of clean clothes again. Even though the machines in Europe are even more expensive to use than the already overpriced machines in my apartment's basement back home. Another little thing I enjoyed here, were the video screens that showed news, weather, and funny commercials while you were waiting for your train on the subway. That little monster in the picture is in most of the commercials.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Salzburg and cities in Italy, Vienna felt like a place I could enjoy living in. At the very least, I'd like to spend a few more days here next time.


June 20-21
After Salzburg, my next stop was Berlin. I like taking night trains because you don't have to waste daylight travelling. Berlin was not my favorite place. I've had a lot of great days travelling, so there was bound to be a bad one in there I suppose. Maybe if I had been in a better mood, I'd have liked Berlin more, but I wasn't. The city was very dark. The buildings are dark and the history is dark, and the neighborhood I stayed in was dark (and the hostel was the least friendly place I've stayed. Clean, safe, fine. But dark). I was in need of a day in the sun and a friendly face, and found neither on my first day there.

My second day in Berlin, I went on a free walking tour (one of the New Europe tours), which was excellent. The guide was from Australia and did a great job (this was the most English I heard in Berlin). By the end, I almost liked the city (Not enough to stay though). The history of the city is incredibly interesting and I liked seeing the places I've learned about in classes, but Berlin probably would have been better to visit with a group of people.

My favorite place in Berlin was the Jewish houlocaust memorial. Its a very simple, impersonal looking memorial of hundreds of stone blocks of varying heights, but otherwise identical, arranged in straight rows, in a plaza where the ground is full of small hills. The deeper you walk into the memorial, the taller the stones get, and the colder and more solemn it gets. It has an interesting effect of feeling confining, but also protecting. As I walked next to the blocks, I felt hidden, but as soon I crossed the next path and could see all the way to the end of the row, I would remember how open it was. Despite being able to see to the end of each row, you still lose people in the memorial. You can hear them, but can't find them. There are no faces, just large blank stones. Its a maze, but also very orderly. I thought it was very well done, it certainly made you stop and think about what it was, and why it exists. After walking through the memorial, we (the tour group) had a discussion about how we felt about the memorial and how German's acknowledge WWII history- very interesting to hear perspectives other than only American.

Perhaps I will give Berlin another chance someday, but I didn't want to stay longer this trip, so I took another night train to Vienna. On this train, I met a photographer and a sound engineer, both living in Berlin, and we had a conversation about the diffreneces in digital and analog art, and then compared other cities we've visited. People can be so interesting. This time I booked a sleeper car, and it was definitely worth it, spending all day on my feet and moving around so often does catch up with you and makes you tired eventually.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


June 17-19

After Venezia, I took a night train to Salzburg. In my compartment was a grad student from Purdue (we talked about Ann Arbor) and a man and his daughter who are from Austria, but now living in Vancouver (so we talked about the Stanley Cup finals and the series between our teams). We also spoke in German for a bit about Austria (this was the first time I had a chance to have a German conversation in Europe). Sleeping on the train was about like sleeping on an airplane, I didn't mind too much. (I've learned to appreciate being small, it makes travel so much more comfortable). I was surprised to find out that the train arrived in Salzburg 3 hours earlier than I expected it to though. I had read the time table for the arrival time for the train's final stop (Vienna), not my final stop (Salzburg). Venice was probably about 90 degrees and sunny the day I left, Salzburg was closer to 50 and rainy. Luckily the Austrians are prepared for cold weather and have enclosed waiting rooms on train platforms, and McDonalds opens really early in the morning and has free wifi. The fleece sweatshirt I had packed, that I was tired of carrying for no reason was suddenly nice to have. Thanks mom for insisting that I bring it.

I loved Salzburg. The old town is small and the mountains are large, but both are very pretty. They do everything they can to capitalize on Mozart and the Sound of Music here (I think the hostel I stayed at was one of the only ones that doesn't show the movie daily). 

It had been awhile since I'd visited a smelly fort (sorry Dad, I haven't found wooden forts here), so I visited the castle first, Schloss Hohensalzburg, instead. Unlike the Americans and Italians, the Austrian do not charge you extra for audio tours of castles and museums (at least not anywhere I visited), they actually want you to learn something! Another place I really liked was St. Peters. The graveyard was really unique (its the inspiration for the one at the end of the Sound of Music). 

Most of the tombstones there were not actually that old. A few from the late 1800's, but many from the last 50 years. I assume it was because of destruction during WWII, but don't know for sure (I've only missed having my phone when I want to look up random facts like that and can't, then forget later). Inside, the church has 5 organs. 5! 

The views from the top of Mönchsberg are the best in the city, if you ever come here, make sure to see them. Schloss Hellbrunn was another good tour, there are trick fountains installed through out the 400 yr old gardens. (When I was travelling with the group still, nearly everyday someone would say "what do you want to do today?" "See some old stuff". I still have a hard time comprehending how old everything is here).

Now that I had left Italy and arrived in the mountains, it was time to start drinking beer instead of wine (well mostly anyway...). One evening I went to the Augustinerbräu (thanks for the recommendation Matt!) with a group of students from LSU (just in case you didn't already know, Les Miles is from Michigan). The beer garden is next to the Augustine monastery and the drinks are poured straight from the wooden barrel. I think the monastery is linked with the brewery in more than just name, but I don't know for sure. The next day I went with another roommate for a tour of the Stiegl brewery. The tour was in German and a little fast, so slightly difficult to understand, but the signs and pictures helped. In their World of Beer exhibit at the end of the tour, they have a tower of Austrian beer bottles. Its far more impressive than an Ashley's card. 

I also learned that its a good idea to drink a Pilsner after red wine, because it neutralizes the acidity in the wine. "Beer auf Wein, so soll es sein!". I've met a lot of fun people from around the world in Salzburg. The hostel had a lounge, bar and pool table that made for a great rainy night in with new friends! 

Friday, July 1, 2011


June 15-16

In Venice, I stayed at the Hotel Primavera, just outside of the main island in Mestre. It was less than a 10 minute bus ride to town and less than half the cost of any hostel in downtown Venice (this is the most expensive city I've visited so far). The concierge informed me that I'm the first American that he's heard pronounce "gratzie" correctly. I'm quite proud of that, since we had just spent the last week trying to figure that out. Also how to respond to "prego" when someone in a store uses it to greet you. We never figured out the answer to that one.
I spent the first afternoon exploring on my own, where among other things, I discovered an impromptu concert in San Marco Square from a choir who was travelling, and a book launch party in a used book store (I love bookstores).

I ate Tiramisu next to the Grand Canal that evening in Rialto. Since it was a little late and I had enough trouble navigating Venice in the daylight, instead of walking, I took the vaporetti back to the hotel where I met my roommates.

They were two lovely girls, from London who were stopping here before visiting the Greek islands. We swapped stories and they gave me a whole list of things to do and places to go in London later. We explored the winding streets and canals together the next day and spent quite a bit of time riding around on the vaporetti (boat busses, far more economical than gondolas), and shopping. It seems like it must be a requirement that anyone who works on the vaporetti must be an attractive male around age 25. I think its a good rule.

Nearly every store in Venice sells Murano glass (made in Venice) or carnival masks of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Also made in Venice is Fragolina, a strawberry flavored wine. Strawberries are my favorite, and fragolina is delicious.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A different way to travel

After Florence, Chelsea, Gerst, Nick, and Noah headed to the Cinque Terre, and I left them and went off on my own for awhile, to Venice, Salzburg, Berlin, and Vienna. Travelling alone has been fantastic (usually), I highly recommend that everyone try it sometime. At home, I'm not so fond of being by myself for long periods of time. But travelling alone has been a lot of fun. I love my friends, but its a completely different experience when you're not around people you know and not with a big group. I have met so many more people, from all over the world. You're forced to be more outgoing if you want company, but you have a lot more freedom with your plans. I also like that on my own, I can avoid looking like a tourist sometimes. The giant backpack and camera give it away sometimes of course, but I've found that in Austria and Germany, I can blend in fairly well on the street. Also people must think that I look like I know where I'm going, as I'm often asked for directions (being lost often enough myself, that's what I look for when I decide who to ask. People with maps, cameras or shorts are usually not on that list). Not being immediately identified as American all the time has let me practice my German more too. Its amazing how quickly your language skills can improve when you are constantly surrounded by it. After getting off of the train in Austria, it was a nice surprise to be able to understand the signs and people around me again!

Downside of travelling alone? You end up with a lot more awkward self photos