A Meeting of Friends

18/05/15

I remember planning the night before planning to not take a shower the next day until I got to my friend Dani’s place, because I would be walking out in the hot sun with my luggage again. Even though it would only be for about 15-20 minutes, that much time dragging luggage around in the sun can make all the difference. I had taken one the evening before I left St. Petersburg and I try to only take one every other day because it is supposed to be better for your skin and hair, but this usually ends up being every day and a half or even every day because I hate being dirty. Unfortunately this morning I just felt so dirty that I had to take a shower. I got up early because I was still on St. Petersburg time and used to waking up at 7:30 am for class, and the first thing I did was shower (without a towel).

Throughout my travels this last year I have often not had a towel to use, or only a very small one. When I traveled in Russia, I used a hand towel, which was actually a sufficient size to serve the purpose of drying myself off. When I traveled over winter with Kenzy and Ali, Kenzy and I both did not use towels because we didn’t have them to bring with us. Drip drying was good enough. This time I still didn’t have a towel to use, but I needed a shower (I think the lack of towel was another reason I had intended to wait until I got to Dani’s to shower, because I assumed she had some that I might be able to use).

Dream Cube Hostel thankfully has breakfast included since I didn’t have any groceries. The breakfast was the typical European hostel breakfast. There was coffee, tea, and milk of course, some fruit, cornflakes, bread that you could make toast with and jams to put on the toast. I decided to take a couple of pears and an apple and cut them up to put on my cereal. This was the breakfast that we had had almost every morning while we traveled in the winter, with slight variations here and there, and this was the best I could come up with, with what I had to work with.

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(The park we visited)

After I had finished eating breakfast, I let Dani know that I was ready to come over whenever she was. She wanted to take some time to clean up after our other friend left, so I got back to work booking flights and hostels and communicating with my friend in France to see if I could come visit. As has been my intention throughout this trip, I tried to study some Russian, but everyone wants to know what you are doing so it is very difficult in the hostel environment.

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(The pond at the park)

Eventually Dani was ready for me so I headed in her direction. The street between us was on a hill, and thankfully I was headed downhill rather than up.

I found what I thought was her building, and realized that we hadn’t talked about a way for me to contact her when I got there. I managed to get in the building and stood around for a while looking at the mailboxes or for some clue as to where in the building she stayed. Eventually I decided it might be better to exit the building because anyone who came in kind of gave me a strange look since I was standing there with my luggage looking lost in a building that you had to have a key or have someone buzz you in to enter.

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(Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph)

I stood back out on the street looking at the buttons that would call each apartment (because sometimes they have names next to them), and then Dani came out probably not even five minutes later to throw some clothes away. (She was leaving Barcelona soon at this point and had to decrease the amount of possessions she owned abroad because she could not carry it all home).

After we made it inside, we started off the day (it was probably 1 or 2pm at this point so “starting” might not be the proper word) in a very relaxed manor. Dani took a nap because she was tired from having our other friend over, and talked to my friend with whom I planned to visit Istanbul until it came time for me to attend my online orientation for my summer program.

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(The arch up close)

Eventually Dani got up and decided to show me a little bit of the city. We went to a beautiful park with a pond, and spent some time walking through it and just enjoying the greenery, and catching up of course.

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(Looking for contact cleaner, or on the way)

(A little background on us. Dani and I met at my university in Pennsylvania. She was a junior (3rd year) when I was a freshman (1st year). We met on the cheer team. We both cheered that year and were both treated badly by the captains. She was also in the sorority I joined my sophomore (2nd) year, and she was a major part in me joining. Not because she tried to convince me to join or not join, she (and most of the rest of my sorority) was just the type of person I would want to call my sister. Through mutual experiences, and just having enough in common we became good friends and close sisters).

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(All of the pigeons)

After walking through the park, she showed me that Barcelona had an arch of triumph, like France (not that I have seen the one in France because I have not been there yet).

Before heading back in the direction of home, we decided to look at an optometry store to see if they had the contact solution that I needed. I had not worn my contacts for the last 2 months while I studied because I ran out of the cleaner and could not figure out how to get it in Russia. We asked a lady and thought she understood what I wanted. The bottle I was sold was weird, but I needed to wear my contacts so I thought I would give it a try.

Dani had spent all of her money while our other friend was with her, so she did not have much to spend with me. On that first night she showed me a small restaurant that she said was very local, and the plan was for me to eat there and her to eat back at her apartment since I wanted to try something local.

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(Modern Art)

At first I sat outside because the weather was nice, but the waiter immediately asked me what I wanted, and when I asked for a menu, he said they didn’t have any and beckoned me inside. He sat me at a table and handed me a menu in English and one in Spanish. I was supposed to find what I wanted in English then find it on the menu in Spanish because the man did not speak a word of English. Unfortunately the menus were slightly different. I wanted some sort of sausage with mushroom sauce, and instead ended up with sausages with fries. At least the fries were real, and the meal was only about 6 euros, which is very inexpensive for a bigger city like Barcelona.

That night, after I returned, we broke out the vodka. Dani apologetically mentioned that she did not have shot glasses, but funnily and fittingly enough (because I had been in Russia), I did. We definitely did not finish the bottle that night. We only got about a third of the way through it, and then we decided to head to a bar. The bar we were planning to go to was called the Dow-Jones Bar or something. The idea was that the price of drinks would go up if someone bought one, but if one had not been sold in a while then the price would start dropping. I thought it was a really cool idea, so I wanted to see it.

The night did not really go as planned and we left the bar almost as soon as we arrived and returned home to watch a movie or something. I want to ask my friend before I put additional information about the night and Barcelona in general in my blog.

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The Day of Expiration

17/05/15

On the 17th my Russian visa, which had been extended the previous semester, expired. After something like this you cannot feel physically different, but the mental realization was kind of shocking. Russia, and specifically St. Petersburg, had been my home for so long and for such a significant time in my life, and I was leaving the city behind without a notion of when I would be able to return. Who knows when I will be back? But I promised everyone that I would return, including myself.

I had a few rubles leftover, so I decided to buy a bottle of good vodka (0.5 liters) to take to my friend who I would see in Barcelona. The first night in Barcelona I stayed in a hostel because my friend had another friend visiting her and could not host two people at once.

I arrived in Barcelona at the airport at about 8 am. As I was going through passport control, I was stopped because they asked my for my return flight information. At that point I did not have any flight beyond Barcelona booked, so I could tell them when I was leaving the European Union, but I could not give them documents confirming what I said. Normally this is not a problem when flying into the EU, but there are certain cities that are more interested in such information. We all know the rules concerning travel, so it really should not be a problem, but after getting to know more about Barcelona I understood why. At passport control they took my passport and made me sit off to the side for about 10 minutes, then someone came to talk to me and give my passport back, but I was immediately let through. They did stamp my passport, but it makes me wonder if they put a flag on my passport or something, although I doubt it. I have never broken the law, so they would have no reason to. I don’t know why they needed it for so long, but at least it was returned to me.

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(Coming in for landing)

After entering the luggage carrousel area of the airport and picking up my checked bag, the first thing I did was try to withdraw money because I needed cash for transportation as well as paying for the hostel upon my arrival. There were two ATMs right next to each other, so I tried one a couple times, then the other and was a little worried that they didn’t work. I decided to go online to try to check my bank account to see if there was a problem, but this was easier said than done. My phone had updated a few weeks before and ever since the update it has trouble connecting to free wifi, which has proved to be very frustrating because I have no data plan abroad and internet is pretty important when trying to find your way around another city, much less another country. (But, of course, people managed this before wifi as well)

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(Not the most beautiful area of the coastline)

Finally I did manage to connect to the internet, only to receive an email warning that there was unusual activity on my card. I realized I had forgotten to tell the bank I was traveling after I completed my program in Russia. I had only warned them I would be abroad until May 17th, and then the plan was for me to go home (the plan that had been created before I left the United States in June). I quickly let the bank know that the attempts to use my card were not due to fraud, and then set a travel alert on my bank account to let them know where else I was planning to travel. After I overcame this headache, I was immediately able to withdraw money and move onto the next headache of trying to find my way to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I had purposely booked a hostel located about a 15 minute walk from where my friend had told me she lived in Barcelona so that I would not have to struggle to get my bags onto additional transportation to get there.

The directions the hostel gave if one wanted to use public transportation and not pay for a taxi required a person to make two transfers on the transportation. First, from bus to metro, and then from metro to tram. I decided before I started my journey that this was a bit excessive, so I went to ask information how to get to the hostel to see if they had another option. It seemed that they did – a transfer simply from one bus to another.

I went on my way (paying the bus driver with a 20 euro note. In Russia he probably would not have let me ride the bus, but I didn’t have anything smaller because I had just withdrawn money) and found myself at the main plaza (sort of a giant roundabout) where I would make a transfer to the next bus. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as the lady at information had described. The plaza had bus stops on every connecting street, so I went around in a circle from street to street, with all of my luggage, checking the bus stops and trying to figure out the map of transportation to see if my bus would be there. (In addition to walking around with my luggage, I was still wearing the jeans and light jacket I had donned the night before when I was headed to the airport in St. Petersburg, so I was very warm). The bus stop I wanted was not there as far as I could tell. In the end I decided to try the metro. I am used to using the metro in Russia. I know the one in St. Petersburg very well, and I can get around on the one in Moscow too, and after traveling on so many in the winter I thought it wouldn’t be a problem for me to take this one. What I found was a mess. The entrances weren’t clear, so I ended up carrying (not rolling) my luggage through a mess of underground passageways, up and down stairs, that were supposed to be “convenient connections.” I did eventually make it to the right area and found my way to the tram. Getting on the tram was pretty straightforward, but after getting off, I got lost again.

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(At the first plaza)

The directions after getting off the tram seemed pretty straightforward. Normally I think I am pretty capable of getting around alone and reading a map, since I have had to do this multiple times without a GPS, but I have to get lost sometimes, otherwise I won’t learn. At the end of the tram was another roundabout that I ended up walking around, with all of my luggage with me as well. I finally did find the correct street I was looking for and made it to the hostel where I would be staying for the night. I walked in the front door and found, as with many European hostels, the hostel was on the second floor, so I had to walk up the stairs with all of my luggage. I don’t like taking multiple trips if I don’t have to, so backpack on my back, 50 pounds in one hand and the carry-on in the other; I made my way up the narrow stairs. They heard me coming as the bag occasionally hit the wall, but I made it.

I found reception at the top. A man was working there at the time when I arrived (in his late 20’s); he took one look at me and understood that I was tired (after staying up all night for the plane ride, and then walking around for a while with my luggage, how could I not be). Unfortunately the beds weren’t ready because they were still cleaning the rooms and changing the sheets, but at least I was able to sit in one place.

As I mentioned before, I was stopped at passport control, so I decided that since I could not sleep, that this would be a good time to start booking the rest of my trip. At this point (one May 17th) I only had my trip figured out until May 26th.

Finally the bed was ready, so the rest of my day was spent taking a long nap. The hostel I stayed at was called “Dream Cube.” The beds were such that we basically slept in our own cubes. The room I was in probably had 6 beds, but each bed had a curtain that shut out the light and separated you from the rest of the people in the room. It was very nice to have these curtains since I wanted to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The hostel was very comfortable, and I would recommend it if you choose to travel to Barcelona.

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(My shadow in the hot sun with my luggage and light jacket)

When I finally woke up, it was much later. This was my first time staying in a hostel by myself because when I traveled alone in Lithuania, I chose to stay with hosts. People traveling in groups bigger than 2 are intimidating to people who choose to travel alone, because I have been in those groups, and unless you approach others, people won’t bother you. Traveling alone you make your friends along the way and go see sights with people from the hostel if you choose. Since I was only in the Barcelona hostel for one night, the social aspect was not as important, but I ended up speaking with fellow hostel-stayers as well as the man working there, for hours. The man was Catalan – the cultural group that is native to Barcelona. He was very nice, so I did not get the initial experience of the Catalan people that I later understood them to be.

The man working there offered me some of his soup, which I decided to try because I think at this point in the day the only thing I had eaten was a bag of peanuts, and it was also too late to go out and buy groceries, not that I really wanted to because I was only there for one night. It was apparently a traditional Catalan summer soup. It was cold and really good in the heat. Although I am from California and warm weather is usually very normal for me, I was not used to the heat anymore because in Russia it had still been cool enough that I often needed a light jacket, and I had not even been out of Russia for 24 hours at this point.

I did end up meeting some very interesting people at this hostel and really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately I will not stay in touch with them because it was a brief meeting, and you cannot stay in touch with everyone. One conversation I remember having was with a guy, who I believe was from Chile. He was studying in Holland and traveling with a friend he met there. We had a conversation about South American names and how they tend to use both last names from their parents, as well as remembering a few names back on the father’s side of the family. He said if you did not do this, you would never know that you might be related to someone. This is part of the reason why in films from this area of the world the names are so long, but not the only reason. He mentioned that in these films, often a person would add a religious phrase, which would make their name even longer and sound more complicated or interesting.

We had many interesting conversations, but unfortunately it was too long ago now for me to remember.

Since I had slept earlier I ended up staying up later than most people there, but at least without people to talk to I got some work done.

In Prague You Should Eat Mexican Food Of Course!

28/12/14 Second Day in Prague

I like to sleep with the window open. I get this from my dad, and from common sense. It is really uncomfortable and unhealthy to sleep in a room with (in this case) four other people with the window closed and the heat on. Many people don’t seem to understand this. They are still caught up in the world where cold air is what gives you colds, so you need to sleep in a sweat box. Instead, it is the sleeping in the sweat box that will make you sick, especially if someone else sleeping in the same enclosed space is already sick. Five people sleeping and breathing for eight hours in one room definitely uses up all of the fresh air, and you start to breathe each other’s air. You can see evidence of the disgustingness and unhealthiness of this situation in the condensation that gathers on the window and the smell that seems to cling to the room after such a night in a heat box. Perhaps you can understand that the heat and moisture is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. If rooms were not as large as they are with cracks allowing a tiny bit of air to seep into the room, we could suffocate in a situation like that. I know this is bringing it to the extreme, but perhaps you have heard of those people who get caught in a blizzard and have to spend the night in their car. They close their windows all the way because it is cold outside, and instead suffocate in their sleep. It is better to be cold, and that is what blankets are for. Most people don’t seem to understand this, and these Indian men definitely did not. Throughout the night, I listened as I heard one get up and shut the window that I had left cracked open. I am a light sleeper and this movement wakes me up, so, I waited for some time and got up and opened the window again. In the morning when he got up, he shut it again. At this point I let it go because I knew he would get ready and eventually leave the room.

The next day we woke up to the unpleasant sound of one of our Indian roommate’s alarm clocks going off at about 7:00 a.m. Needless to say we weren’t happy about this, especially since it didn’t seem to be pressing that he get up. He continued to lie in bed for a while after the alarm went off, and then proceeded to start getting ready at about 7:30 a.m. His time getting ready included spending about an hour in the bathroom, 45 minutes of which was spent in the shower and the rest of which was spent doing who knows what.  After He was done showering and getting ready, it was probably about nine. He proceeded to dawdle around, lying on his bed, playing on his phone, until about 10:30 or 11:00 when he finally left. So, why did his alarm need to go off at 7:00? He seemed as though he was waiting for us to get up so he could talk to us or something, (we continued to pretend to be asleep because after such a performance in the morning, we did not have any interest in talking to him) but he and his roommate finally left for the day.

Because Ali wasn’t feeling well, and I woke up feeling under the weather again we decided to take the morning slowly. This hostel did not serve breakfast for a price we were willing to pay (especially since they had already made us pay to rent sheets, except Kenzy who had decided it would be convenient to carry around a hostel sheet), so the only time commitment we had was to try to go on a free walking tour of Prague at about 2:00 p.m. that started out in the square we had been in yesterday. We did not know exactly how these walking tours worked, so we figured we could just show up about 10 minutes before it started and join in.

We arrived at the square probably around two hours before the tour started and wandered around buying and eating food, and enjoying browsing the various souvenirs offered in the stands before we went on a two hour long walking tour. We then went over to where the tour was meeting about ten minutes before it started as we had planned, and found that the tours indeed did have restrictions. The tour guides could only take up to 40 people on one tour. You could make reservations online to ensure your place in the tour and it would not cost anything, or you could show up earlier, but we did not know how much earlier. We didn’t get to go on the tour that day because it had filled up, so we decided to make a reservation for the next day just to be safe. We had heard good reviews about these tours, and did not want to miss out, especially since it was free.

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(The strange silver statue that would be mentioned on the tour the next day as well).

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(The prohibition themed restaurant)

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(A closer picture for a better idea of what it looked like)

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(The district with the prettier buildings)

Since our plan to spend our day going on a walking tour had not worked out, we decided to wander from the square in a different direction than the bridge had been in so that we could see something new. We did see many new things, such as a prohibition café, and a strange silver statue. We also found the edge of the Jewish Quarter and a Franz Kafka statue that stood in front of it. The stores in this area all seemed to be higher end designer-brand stores, but this meant that the buildings they were located in were beautiful. We decided it would be worth walking a little bit further into this area to see some of the buildings, and then head to an early dinner. However, it was still very early by the time we were finished exploring this area of the city, so we decided to find a bar and get a Czech beer since their beer is very good. This helped us waste about a half hour of time, at which point we decided 4:30 was late enough for dinner.

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(I really liked the tree in front of this building)

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(A Jewish synagogue)

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(Franze Kafka Statue on the edge of the Jewish Quarter)

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(Less zoomed in)

We had found someone’s travel blog that said the best Mexican food in all of Europe, was in Prague at a restaurant called Las Adelitas, so of course we had to go. We have all been abroad in Europe for months now and, although each country has its own cuisine, the flavors in Europe are very mild compared to other parts of the world, and we missed serious flavors. In addition, we are also all from the West Coast of the United States, where cuisine is heavily influenced by any country that uses strong spices, but especially easy to find is food and flavors that have come up from Mexico and that we all love. We grew up with this food.

Our early dinner was at this Mexican restaurant, Las Adelitas, which we had found the day before so that we would know where to go. Since this cuisine is so important to us, we decided to make this a big dinner and ended up spending more than we might normally spend on a meal. Thankfully Eastern Europe is cheaper than other parts, so it was not as expensive as it could have been.

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We started our dinner off with margaritas because we were at a Mexican restaurant and really had no choice. Kenzy and I ordered the mango margaritas (they probably had about 10-15 different flavors for margaritas) which came recommended by our waiter. They arrived with a fresh slice of mango in them and were very good. Ali decided she would rather have a strawberry margarita, but after exchanging tastes of each, she wished she had ordered a mango one as well, but enjoyed her strawberry one anyway.

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(Mexican food and Margaritas at Las Adelitas)

One of my favorite things to order in the United States at certain kinds of restaurants, even though it is not strictly Mexican, it is Mexican influenced, are nachos. I don’t mean the cheap tortilla chips with the fake nacho cheese (although I do guiltily like those too), I mean the nachos that are piled with beans, cheese, greens, salsa, sour cream, and so on. Looking at the menu in this restaurant because it had been so long since I had either, I could not decide between the enchiladas and the nachos. In the end we all split the nachos (which were big enough to be a full meal themselves) and I ordered the enchiladas. They had three different kinds of enchiladas (separated by the types of sauces). One had green sauce, another had red, and the last had mole (accent on the e) sauce. I wanted to try all of them because I am indecisive when it comes to food because I want to try everything, but thankfully one of the options was to order a plate with each of these on it. I really enjoyed the enchiladas with green and red sauce, because I am a salsa person, but the mole sauce was a little bit too sweet for me to completely enjoy on an enchilada. Regardless, they were all delicious, and this place was very good as promised. Finally I decided I wanted to try a Mexican beer in comparison to the Czech beer because they had Mexican beers at this restaurant. (The time and food intake between these drinks was enough that I was trying these drinks to enjoy them, not to experience any sort of chemical change).

We probably spent about 2-3 hours eating this meal, and decided to head back to the hostel and our lovely roommates at the end of it.

Even When You Encounter Something Unpleasant, Enjoy Yourself

27/12/14 First Full Day In Prague

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(On our way to the next hostel, the sun was shining)

I had written a couple more posts from winter break that I have not gotten around to posting, so now I am going to try.

In the morning we had breakfast with the Indian girls, who would be staying in this hostel for a few nights, and parted ways (this was the first breakfast we had eaten that had anything hot. There were scrambled eggs and beans here).

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(Also on the way to the next hostel, you can see a few stands of Christmas Markets here)

Our hostel bookings in a few locations, such as Prague, got a little mixed up causing us to have one night booked in one hostel and the rest booked in another. Walking down the hill in the morning to catch the tram at the bottom, we realized how close it was to come from this direction to get to the hostel, but that wouldn’t matter anymore because we did not have any reason to return to this hostel. Instead we went across town to another, larger hostel, and immediately wished our stay in Prague had all been in the first hostel that we stayed in. This hostel was called A and O Hostel Hotel, or something of the sort, and apparently has about six different locations. We did not feel the need to check in yet, we just wanted to drop our stuff off in their luggage storage rooms so that we would not have to carry it around as we spent the day out in the city.

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(A picture of Czech money)

The first thing we did in Prague out in the city was withdraw money of course. For some reason I decided it would be ideal if one person withdrew all of the Czech crowns so that the other two of us could pay them back in Euros. I don’t remember my reasoning at the time, but it made sense then and seemed to work out at the end of Prague. Kenzy decided she would withdraw money, and we headed into the main square, where all of the tourists go. Even though Munich had already started cleaning up their Christmas markets when we were there, Prague’s were up, and they were in full swing. It was okay with us that Munich had already shut their markets down because we had spent so many days wandering the markets of Nuremberg, but it was nice that Prague still had markets open because it offered a different selection of food and other items to look at then the ones that had been available in Nuremberg. Whereas Nuremberg has many markets seemingly all over the city, Prague only had a few concentrated in one square, which was a nice contrast to the overwhelming amount available in Nuremberg.

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(The first treat we ate from the markets. It was very good)

The day was beautiful, cloudy and a bit chilly, but no precipitation to get in our way. Old cars took tourists on rides around the city, and the smell of food wafted from nearby stands. We had no particular plan for the day as we walked up to the square. We immediately found a dessert a friend who had been to Prague described to us and suggested we try. It was dough that was wrapped around a thick metal rod and turned over coals. After it came off of the metal rod, it was rolled in cinnamon and sugar and handed to the waiting customer. It was good to eat on a cold day as the cold froze our fingers while we held them out of our pockets or our gloves while consuming the treat in front of us. Kenzy and I felt almost at home, we were back in Eastern Europe, things were cheaper again and not run on the Euro, and the language had some similar words to what we had spent our last semester studying.

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(A church in the square that we saw as we were eating our cinnamon-sugar covered treats)

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(A picture of a street in Prague, in the bottom right you can see one of the cars that one drive people on tours around the city)

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(An important church that we would be told about on our walking tour)

Eventually the dessert came to an end and we had to keep moving to stay warm, so we moved further out in the square and saw what we could and bought real lunch food from the market. Kenzy and I got chicken kebabs on a baguette while Ali opted for a bratwurst on a bun. It is sad that the mustard they have at these markets out on the square is better than the majority of the mustard people in the United States choose to spread over their food, but there is something to be said for quality over quantity and vice versa in the United States.

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(One side of the Astronomical Clock Tower)

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(In the middle of the Christmas Markets was a huge Christmas Tree)

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(Also in the square, a monument we would be told about on the walking tour as well)

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(The Astronomical Clock)

Most of our day was spent wandering around and enjoying the sites (and occasionally stepping inside where we could to warm up again). We saw an important church (which I will picture, but discuss in a later post), an important astronomical clock tower, and an important bridge. We wouldn’t know the complete importance of these places we had seen until we went on our guided tour a few days later.

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(The view from the bridge of the castle)

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(Another view from the bridge)

When it came time for dinner, we headed back to the hostel. Instead of immediately eating dinner, Ali and I took a nap while Kenzy headed to a nearby store to by dinner for herself and Ali.

In the half hour to an hour that Kenzy was gone and Ali and I were napping, two more people arrived in our room. They were two Indian guys who looked to be about our age, but dislike was almost immediately established from Ali’s and my point of view because even though we were obviously lying in bed with our eyes closed, they decided it was acceptable to try to strike up a conversation with us. Relations did not improve because they continued to be inconsiderate from then on. I remember them saying that first night that they liked to see European cities better at night because they look better. This I don’t understand in any circumstance because a European city will look like any other city at night. They all have lights, and will create a picture of a dark landscape with twinkling spots of light, The light may be in differing configurations, but this is not unique. Maybe going up to a particular building at night that is lit up is a unique experience, but in those cases I like to see the building in the day and at night.

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(Walking off of the other side of the bridge)

After Kenzy had returned with food and the two Indian guys had left to go see the city at night, we decided it was time to eat dinner. We knew the hostel had a guest kitchen, but we didn’t realize how poorly thought out much of what the hostel had to offer, was.

We went down to the guest kitchen and found it was locked, so Kenzy went up to reception to ask them to unlock it. She received a very unprofessional and rude reply that there was only one key to the guest kitchen and someone had taken it so they could not possibly open the kitchen for us because you need the key. Of course they had a master key that opened all of the doors in the hostel, the lady was “busy” flirting with some guys who had come to the bar (they had a bar at the reception desk) and couldn’t possibly spare a second to come down and open the kitchen for us. She also refused to lend us the key even if we promised to bring it right back because we are hooligans of course and would probably use it to go where we shouldn’t. When Kenzy came back and recounted her dealings with the woman at the desk, Ali, who hadn’t been feeling well, had had enough. She went up to reception too, and I don’t know exactly what happened between the lady at reception and her, but words were traded (some cursing that the person working at the desk unprofessionally brought into the conversation) with some indication that the kitchen would be unlocked once reception stopped being so busy.

With this information, we decided to all go up to the reception area and sit looking expectantly in their direction so that they could not forget us. Once reception was clear we finally got the hostel workers to agree to open the door. Here I ask, what is the point of having a guest kitchen if you keep it locked? All proper hostels have a kitchen for the people staying there to use, with dishes provided. People who stay in hostels need and want those dishes and that kitchen available. Usually hostel goers are traveling and want to have the option of making their own food , but are not going to steal anything because that’s not hostel culture and it is too heavy to carry dishes around.

Obviously this was not a proper hostel.

After dinner, we went back up to our room to get ready for bed. Eventually the Indian guys came back and were equally as irritating as they had been before. (I think that along with some of us not feeling well and being tired from traveling, there was a bit of culture clash in the manners and etiquette department. Usually I am okay adjusting to a new culture, but the new culture I was adjusting to here was the Czech culture since I was in the Czech Republic).

Munich on Christmas Eve

24/12/14

It was a sunny day with temperatures warmer than what Kenzy and I had been experiencing for a while in St. Petersburg and warmer than Nuremberg had been. We did not hurry to get out of bed, but the fact that breakfast closed at a certain time probably helped motivate us to get up. However, breakfast closed later than usual because it was Christmas Eve, which is considered a holiday, so it was still a late morning. Since the planning for the days in Munich had happened the night before, we already had an idea of what we planned to accomplish that day, but we never try to stick to a specific time schedule unless it includes our train from one city to another, or the breakfast that won’t wait for us to roll out of bed at whatever time we please.

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(I felt the need to take a picture of my shadow to prove and remember that it was actually a sunny day).

When we finally walked out the door to start our day, I decided not to where my long, warm, purple coat because of the difference in temperature, hoping that it would stay how it was and not become any colder or windier. As we got on the tram to take us in the direction of our first destination, we noticed that everything was closed. Christmas Eve is apparently a big holiday in this part of the world, bigger I would say than Christmas itself, unlike in the United States where stores are still open until probably the early afternoon on Christmas Eve for last minute shoppers. However, we did not completely find this out until later. It made sense that some places would be closed the day before Christmas, but how many places would be closed?

The previous day when we arrived in Munich we had also purchased transportation passes that were valid for three days. We left on the fourth day, at which point the passes would be expired, but we would deal with that when the time came because the deal had been for three days. These passes were valid for any form of basic city transportation, so we were able to take a local train over to Dachau because our first plan was to see the Dachau Concentration Camp. Although it is one of the lesser known ones left from World War II, it was the one we were going to come closest to on this trip, and since we had missed out on the Nuremberg Court House where the trials took place and the Nazi parade grounds (which we had wanted and planned to visit) due to transportation costs, we decided this was something we both wanted and needed to do.

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(The entrance to Dachau)

From the train we took a bus to the entrance of the camp. We had planned to take a tour, but despite what had been written online, the tour that was supposed to run even on Christmas Eve, was not running. Instead we led ourselves around the camp grounds and took away from it as much as we could from what information was offered on posters placed throughout the area.

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(The building into which we could not go)

From what I have heard about other Nazi Concentration Camps, many of the buildings are still standing and there is almost no need for the imagination to picture what horrors took place there. With Dachau, this was not the case. The grounds left where the camp was located was a field and trees for the most part. There were signs pointing you to where buildings used to stand and what had taken place there while the camp was active, but to really feel the impact of the camp, the imagination was much needed in forming the pictures painted by the words that we read.

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(On The Path of Remembrance)

In reality, we only got to see a very small part of what was left of the camp. There was at least one building left standing that was the entrance to another part of the camp, but the gates were closed firmly in front of it. We stood by the gate for a short while to look through it at the area we could not enter and in that short time a man walked up and asked us brusquely what we wanted, (to which we replied that we were just looking) then informed us that the buildings were closed so we could not enter (which we had deduced from the locked gates), but if we came back tomorrow, they would be open. Open on Christmas. Thus the comment I made about Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day earlier.

Even though so much of the camp was closed, we only saw two or three other people there, so it was nice to try to be able to understand what happened in relative silence. We made our way into an area of the camp called The Path of Remembrance. I thought initially this path would lead to a bus station where we would take the bus back to the train station, but I was very wrong. The path started in the camp area that was open on Christmas Eve, but soon we walked out of that area and next to an area that the sign told us used to be the SS training center for this camp, but now served as offices of some sort for current riot police in the city and could not be entered because it was private property. We thought it odd that these riot police would continue to use buildings with a history as awful as that that comes from World War II and the concentration camps, but they must have had some reason for doing so. The Path of Remembrance led us from sign to sign and finally back to the train station. I don’t remember how many signs there were, but we skipped two of them because we could not find them.

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(I can’t forget to include the Dalmatian at the train station. Usually I think Dalmatians are a rather ugly breed of dog, but this one was beautiful).

I can’t say it was a good first time going to a concentration camp because what is good about a concentration camp, but I do know that in the future I will definitely have to visit others to better understand the horror and pain of these places. I have always had an interest in the history of World War II, but reading about what happened during the war, and visiting the sites where these events occurred as well as being able to couple the information I read about them with the experience of visiting the place, are definitely different experiences.

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(Down at the old town)

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After visiting the concentration camp, our next stop was the old town. In the old town we spent more time seeing sights. Really it was buildings and architecture in this part that caught our interest, as it will continue to in many of the countries we will visit. We could tell that there had been Christmas Markets here since the stalls were still up, but they were all closed and some were in the process of being packed up. Since we had already enjoyed the markets in Nuremberg, we didn’t mind that the markets here were already closed. In every city we go to we seem to find a Starbucks, unintentionally, but we find them. In Nuremberg we found it in the old town. Since it was Christmas Eve we decided we would all treat ourselves to a Starbucks. Kenzy and Ali wanted peppermint mochas on their search for peppermint that Nuremberg had denied them and now Munich. Of course, Starbucks was out of peppermint syrup, so Ali and I ordered white mochas while Kenzy ordered a toffee-nut latte.

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(I have no idea what many of these buildings were)

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(But they were pretty and the sky was blue, so I took pictures)

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(Some of the are obviously churches or clock towers, but others are just buildings with shops renting space in them).

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(Then the clouds started moving in)

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It was a cold and windy day by this time and all indoor seating areas of the Starbucks were full, so we went out by a restaurant (which was closed) and enjoyed our Starbucks being sheltered by the building from the wind. Unfortunately, although I had one or two drinks from Starbucks in St. Petersburg, I had not had a white mocha. Although I love white mochas, the amount of milk in them makes my stomach turn, so I sat there after finishing my Starbucks with pain twisting my insides.

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(Eventually came the adventure of strange things)

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(And just another random and pretty building I wanted to include, but didn’t know where to put it. There will be many of these because I am interested in buildings and architecture and art).

Eventually I convinced myself to get up because I thought walking around might help and at first it was very painful, but the pain subsided as we walked to see more of the old town. We probably stayed out for another hour because it was already getting dark and by the end of that hour my stomach felt almost normal again.

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(I don’t know who this was, but it looked so strange I had to touch it to understand the texture).

On this last hour of exploration of the old town we found a few strange things. The first was a monument to someone; I am not really sure who. The important part of this strange finding was the base of this monument. The base was covered, and I mean completely covered on all four sides, in pictures and other objects of or relating to Michael Jackson. We could not figure out why it was there, but for some reason it was.

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(Here is a picture of the front of the Micheal Jackson… thing).

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(But there were also cool light spheres hanging in the trees)

The next strange thing we happened across was a small shop. The inside of the shop was illuminated even though the shop itself was closed. Inside the shop were pictures drawn and painted of Donald Duck with money. I can’t really explain the pictures, they were all different, but they all followed the same theme of having both Donald Duck and something relating to money. It was so strange, especially since this was a shop and people buy items from shops, but we didn’t know who would buy something so specific, so, why Donald Duck and money?

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(Unfortunately this picture turned out to be a little bit blurry. I had forgotten about it when I was initially writing the post, but I feel the need to include this. I am completely supportive of the idea of creative license and I understand the aesthetic appeal of having more than just a plain, white building, but in what world would anyone or anything want their legs or fins twisted like that? It is very strange to me).

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From this point we soon decided to go back to the hostel and eat dinner. We had bought cans of soup at the grocery store the day before, which was good since it was now closed. When we had first gone up to our room the night before, we noticed a pizza machine on the way up. This was a machine that stated hot pizza could be ready in 15 minutes. We decided that because it was Christmas Eve and because we were just curious about the pizza machine, that we would have pizza around an hour after dinner as our late night snack. The pizza actually wasn’t bad, although it was small (not that we paid much for it), it was just strange that it came from a machine.

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(Oh, and I can’t forget these lit up people that were above a store front).

Trains, Tickets, Errands, and Markets

22/12/14

(Again, I am late posting again because it seems that the internet at the hostel where I posted the last post only worked for one day and then could not load anything after that. I will do my best posting regularly, but all I can say is I will post when the internet permits me to).

The following day was Monday, so more stands were open and more people were in the market. After eating breakfast (which at this hostel had been a terrible option of copious quantities of bread with choice slices of meat and cheese and some substance resembling cereal) we went back down to the market area with the intention of asking someone where a post office was so that I could mail back the extra Eurail pass that the company had annoyingly sent to me. (A Eurail pass is a pass you can buy to be valid for travel by various means within the European Union in valid countries that is only valid for a certain period after you activate them, but that overall makes the cost of travel less expensive if you plan to travel that much. Unfortunately for them, citizens of countries within the European Union are unable to purchase and use them. We found a post office stand where people were mailing postcards and I frantically scribbled a postcard to my family in the few seconds before it became our turn in line. I like to send postcards and letters and anyone who knows me well enough knows this, there just aren’t very many people who seem to enjoy writing or receiving such things like this as I do, so I end up sending them to my family usually. I am also not buying souvenirs on this trip because Europe is already expensive enough to travel in, so this is my chosen form of souvenirs for my family.

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(There were strange pieces of art all over the city. We found this particular one on the way back from the post office).

We asked our question and sent our postcards (Kenzy sent one too) and went on our way to find the real post-office. I was very annoyed to find out that in Europe you can’t simply write “Return to Sender” on the outside of an unopened envelope or package and have it returned without paying another shipping fee, like in the United States. Instead you have to put it in a new envelope, rewrite all of the addresses and pay the new shipping fee. I had not sent the Eurail pass back before the journey had started because I didn’t physically have it. Since Kenzy and I had been staying in Russia and new that the Russian mail system was not the most efficient or reliable, we had made the decision to send the Eurail passes all to Ali in Aberdeen, so she ended up with my extra one but did not have the time to send it back since she had to pack everything up because she would not be returning to Aberdeen for the next semester. When all was said and done, at least that was one less thing we had to worry about on our journey, even though I had to pay for it.

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(Also on the way back from the post office, just an idea of what some of the buildings looked like in this area).

After sending the Eurail pass back, we had business to attend to at the train station. We had to activate the Eurail passes to be able to use them; this apparently just took the stamp and a signature of a European Union transport official. Our train was the next day, so we wanted to ask all of the necessary questions and make reservations for some trains if they were needed. Apparently Italy has a very messy train system, so we had to reserve all of the trains relating to places we were going in Italy. For the rest of them (hoping there was room) we could just get on in the second class area and fill out the information on our Eurail passes to be stamped when needed. Some of the reservations were much more expensive then I would have liked, but I am told that overall the price for transport done this way was still cheaper than buying each of these train tickets individually.

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(on the way back from the train station, the sun sets early at this time of the year).

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(A church we walked by many times and finally visited).

It was not very late in the day and we had already been productive getting all of this done. (Actually now that I remember this more clearly after the retelling this story, we did all of these errands the same day I got my luggage back, so the day before, but since I already posted about that day and so that I will have something to write about this day other than walking around the markets, I will continue as if it happened this day).

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(The front of the church)

On the way back into the busier parts of the markets, Kenzy bought a desert we had seen at some of the stands before. She let me try a bite and, although it looked rather intriguing, it turned out not to taste like much of anything. It was a chocolate exterior with a flavored marshmallow filling (they had different options for the flavors and Kenzy bought the mocha one). Unfortunately the flavoring of the filling was too weak so in the end it didn’t taste like anything.

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(Stained glass window)

We also happened upon a smaller market area which was located inside what looked like a small village but was all shops. It was very quaint and Christmassy and enjoyable see, but not to walk through. The part that made it unenjoyable was the crowd we faced in every direction we turned. When we left this smaller area and returned to the larger and more open areas of the market, it was even more difficult to walk anywhere because more people kept arriving.

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(Entering the throngs of the market place)

Later we returned to the children’s area of the market because they sold a dessert over there that we wanted to try. I don’t really know how to describe it except to give you the unpleasant image of a mass of dough in a bowl with a watery-textured vanilla pudding substance around it and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. It was a lot more attractive than what I just described, otherwise why would we buy it, and tastier too.

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(It became more crowded as it got darker)

I have traveled with people before who choose not to eat local food because they want to save money and I understand that, I want to save money too. However, I must say that every time I go someplace new I try to find local dishes to try because I feel like I haven’t traveled there and experienced as much as I can of the culture unless I try the food they eat. Also if I am traveling, I know perfectly well that I am spending and not saving money. I can try to spend less, but that does not mean I am saving any. There just needs to be a balance between spending money on food at a restaurant and buying groceries at a market. In addition, if I don’t have a kitchen available to me, then I have to spend money. This is why I am always buying and trying new dishes. Also, if you read any of my blog while I was in Lithaunia towards the end of this last summer and noticed that I went to an Indian restaurant, a Thai restaurant and so on, if I am staying in one location for that long I sometimes miss certain cuisine, but I also like to compare what other countries offer in the area of cuisine and their flavors to what I am used to in the United States.

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(Some examples of what was sold in the market)

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There were a few cathedrals we had passed the previous day in the markets, usually churches are free to visit, but occasionally (in touristy locations) they will charge you. These were free though so we did visit one. It was beautiful and spacious with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. However, it was obviously so spacious, done in an old gothic style, that there was no possible way the building could be heated. A few decorations had been set up around the church for Christmas, but no major decorations could be placed because the ceilings were too high to be useful for decorating.

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(The high ceilings of the church)

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(Inside the church)

One beautiful part of this particular church was what looked like a square filled with white sand, in the center of the square was a small nativity and around the edge of the square, people had placed small candles and drawn designs in the sand with their hands.

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At the end of the day, we really had spent time trying new food and enjoying the Christmas lights and the Christmas markets. Maybe this would not be interesting for some people, but the markets had such a variety of goods to buy and even a section where different stalls represented different countries (the United States was represented by Jack Daniel’s and other ridiculous paraphernalia), that it kept us entertained just looking at many of these stalls. Perhaps I will return to these markets in the future, when I am not already bogged down by a year abroad in Russia, and actually buy something representative of these markets or Christmas. It won’t be the Jack Daniel’s though.

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(More ornaments from the market)

The End of the Semester

19/12/14

Today is actually the 24th that I am writing this. I figure I am already four days into my winter break trip, and the days are flying by so I need to start writing my blog before I fall behind. I know, I know, it’s Christmas Eve, but what better present to give you, than to share my adventures with you because I cannot give you anything else at this point.

I am going to start from the beginning, back when I was still in St. Petersburg.

The night of the 19th, some good friends, who I had met over this last semester, and I went out for a rather fancy goodbye meal at a restaurant called “Gogol,” named after the famous Ukrainian writer. The whole restaurant was set up in the theme of a flat from the 19th century, with each room having a different theme. Pieces from his stories were also pulled into the restaurant as added decoration. The menu was even in the form of a book and although we used the English version where the translation did not hold the same charm, the waitress explained that often customers would keep the menu during the meal just to read it from cover to cover. We ate in the dining room I think, but there was also a library as well as some other rooms. The meal included a variety of dishes, differing slightly for every person. We started with drinks, splitting a large bottle of water (because you have to pay for water in Russia) and ordering some of their homemade, flavored vodka to try. The two flavors of vodka we tried were something like raspberry and buckthorn. I don’t remember completely now because it was five days ago and so much has happened since then. I definitely liked the raspberry one better, but most people preferred the buckthorn. For our first course, many of us ordered salads. It was actual dark green leaves, sort of like a spring mix (hard to come by in Russia for a salad from my experience), with some sort of cheese, tomato and a smoked meet of some sort that they said they smoked in the kitchen of the restaurant. The meat on the salad was something new, but it was actually very good and very worth it. Other first courses that were ordered included borscht and pelmeni. For the main course most of the people in attendance decided on a dish called Chicken Kiev, which I, not being a very fond of chicken, had never tried. I had the opportunity to try a bite from one of my friend’s plates and I can see where other people might enjoy it, but it is definitely not a dish I will order for myself. Another one of my friends ordered Beef Stroganoff, which I also got to try. It was actually pretty good and, of course, dill was used in the dish. Personally, I ordered venison with apples and some sort of sauce (I don’t recall what it was) that was very good and purple. My meal was delicious, although not everyone enjoyed their meals as much. I was too full for dessert so I did not order anything, but among my friends such dishes as chocolate cake with sorbet, strawberry soup and another kind of sorbet from something none of us had ever tried.

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(The salad)

I mentioned dill was in the beef stroganoff, accompanied by the phrase “of course.” It is common knowledge, at least from my point of view, that foreigners, who spend enough time in Russia, realize that Russian’s put dill on everything. For example, one of our program directors, Liz, told us a story about when she made a grilled cheese sandwich and let some of her Russian friends try it. It had been after a long time of just having Russian food and she finally made a grilled cheese sandwich and was so excited to have something familiar and share it with her Russian friends. They tried it and agreed that it was good, but said, “Liz, this is good, but you know what would make it so much better? Dill!” Her reaction was of course immediate disappointment and sadness that her friends would want to taint something like a grilled cheese sandwich with dill.

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(My venison)

Back to my story on Friday night. I over think things and get anxious about what needs to be done sometimes and I had not packed for the impending journey that started the next day, so as the meal went on and it got later, I enjoyed every bit of it, but I started feeling the need to get home. I did not want to rush my friends, but I knew I needed to leave so that I could pack and have some peace of mind before I left my current home (in St. Petersburg) for another adventure. The bill came out to 10,000 rubles for 7 people, which was maybe $170 at the time. Definitely a bit above the price range I would normally pay for a meal.

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(Pretty lights on my way home)

That night while all of my friends spent their last night out enjoying each other’s company, I stayed in and packed. I wasn’t concerned about saying goodbye to my host-parents because I know I will be staying with them again come spring semester. They had company over on my last night in St. Petersburg for that semester anyway, so obviously they weren’t concerned. However, once they found out that I had finished finals (5 finals in 2 days), which I had actually finished the day before, my host mom quickly went and got something. It turned out to be a small bag of socks and underwear, which she presented to me in front of her guests. I did not quite understand, but she said it was some sort of tradition to give these gifts when someone finishes finals. I have tried to look it up online with no luck, so maybe it is a joke? When I have better internet I will message my host-mom in Kazan’ since she speaks English too, to ask her if she knows, although she is Tatar, so we will see.

One part of a day can define the memory of that day…

07/11/14   

It is interesting that the definition of a crowded bus in Russia changes between a big city like St. Petersburg and a smaller city like Vladimir.

I will explain this, but let me tell my story first.

As an introduction, at the beginning of the program during orientation we were told that Russians don’t have the same sense of personal space as people from the United States, and this has proven to be very true. Even when each person is pushed up against the person next to them, more people will try to enter the bus because they don’t want to wait for the next one.

Now I will get to the story.

It was Friday, our second to last day traveling before we returned to our host city. We had planned a trip to a neighboring city called Suzdal’ for the day (which is only about an hour bus ride), but both of us felt ill that morning and changed our plans as we were waiting at the bus stop.

We went back into the center of Vladimir instead and had a calm day first visiting the inside of a church we had gone to the night before, only to discover that it was a poorly put together museum.

We took more pictures of the church with the spire that hid itself in the fog the day before as the air was more clear, and noticed a gathering of people near the church. The people carried red flags with yellow writing and symbols (think the colors of the flag of the Soviet Union). The flags read the initials КПРФ, which I believe stands for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, one of the very active political parties in Russia. Christina didn’t notice them, so I was glad I did, that way we avoided any unwanted attention from them.

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(A clearer picture of this church)

We moved on to a nearby cafe to rest a little because although we hadn’t done much, we still both weren’t feeling ourselves. I ordered a coffee and a macaroon, while Christina ordered something I had never heard of. It looked like dry oatmeal oats that she simply poured milk over, but I am not sure that this is actually what it was.

As we sat at the cafe I continue to feel worse and more exhausted, so eventually we left and went back to the hostel. We both took a two or three hour nap and I woke up feeling much better, but rather hungry.

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(My coffee was pretty)

We decided to go out of the hostel and look for a place to eat instead of eating the food we had. The map had showed us that there was an Italian place nearby, however the map to this restaurant didn’t take into account the gates and fences that barred our ability to get there. We walked around for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get there and after we finally did find the restaurant, it turned out to be closed. We decided to look for another place since the map had shown other restaurants near enough to us, but as we were walking, the street started to look empty. Christina insisted that we keep going because other people were walking on this street so it must lead somewhere. I had a guess of where it lead because of the direction we were headed in, but I wasn’t sure. We ended up on a very dark sidewalk set back from the road next to a bunch of trees in an area that looked like it had a river or a creek, but it was too dark to tell. The only comfort was that it was beautiful, but there were also quite a few pedestrians walking on the same sidewalk.

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(They always seem to arrange napkins in this flowery formation in cafes and restaurants in Russia)

We ended up where I had expected we would, in the city center which we normally took the trolleybus to get to. As we walked along the street looking for a place to eat, we passed the Golden Gate again and saw that it lit up at night. Shortly after that we found a restaurant that looked popular because it had many people inside, so we decided to try it. For me, one way to judge a restaurant on whether the food is good and if it is reasonably priced is by the amount of people in it.

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(The Golden Gate lit up)

The restaurant was split into a few separate areas instead of being one large open room like many restaurants in the United States tend to be. After we had sat down and ordered our food and a glass of wine to accompany it, a young man showed up and was seated near us. He was obviously already intoxicated, and all he ordered was vodka and what looked like a chaser of some sort. A little while later he stumbled over to us uninvited pulled up a chair at our table and promptly sat down. Apparently he became interested because he heard us speaking English. He asked the waitress for a bottle of champagne for us, which I tried to signal her that we did not want it, but he was a big drunk man and we couldn’t really do anything.

He asked us our names, so I told him my name was Masha and that Christina’s was Krysta because it was the first name I thought of. I did most of the talking since Christina didn’t understand much, but we both wanted to get out of there. Christina’s food had already come, but she wasn’t eating it. Her choosing not to eat it wasn’t going to help us get out of there, but she seemed too distressed. After my food came, I told her to eat because I wanted to get the check and leave as soon as we could.

The champagne came and the guy (I never asked his name) made us stand up to toast. After we sat, he proceeded to ask us about American politics since the midterm elections had just happened and Republicans had gained the majority in both houses. I have no interest in getting into a discussion about American politics with a Russian much less a drunken Russian man, so I told him that we were more interested in international politics and didn’t know much about what’s going on in the United States since we were not there, so we can’t say anything about it. He kept trying to ask, but it was lucky in this instance that he was intoxicated because I didn’t have to say much to get off of the subject. After some time he wanted to have a cigarette break with us, but neither of us smoke or have ever smoked. We had to tell him this over and over again because he kept trying to get us to come with him even to keep him company, but apart from not liking cigarette smoke, we had no interest in going out of the crowded restaurant with him. As he was getting up to leave, he asked one of the people at another table in the room if they wanted to smoke with him, but they declined as well. His presence was making everyone’s experience unpleasant.

Finally he left and as soon as he did we asked for the check. Christina was still eating, but we wanted to ask for it at a time when the guy wasn’t in the room. I also moved his chair back to the proper table, but it didn’t do much to prevent him from joining us again.

When he returned, he picked up my glass of champagne and drank it in one gulp. The champagne wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want it so I didn’t really care. He pulled his chair back up and brought his vodka with him this time. He was already very drunk, having knocked over one of the champagne glasses, but I guess he wanted to take more shots. I kept having to move the glasses and the bottle further and further back from him as he became drunker and started having less precise motor control of his movements.

He was very caught up on my name because I had told him it was Masha. He didn’t understand why I had a Russian name and wasn’t Russian. He kept asking me to explain it, but I just asked him why I shouldn’t have a Russian name.

When he got tired of asking about my name, he picked up Christina’s hand and kissed it, at which point she told him she had a boyfriend. He took this as information that both of us had boyfriends, which I don’t, but he proceeded to ask their names. Christina’s boyfriend’s name is very American and he could not understand it, so he moved on to me. I scrambled around for a guy’s name and told him that my boyfriend’s name is Tyler, which was the name of my first boyfriend. I made sure to say the name in a very American way, instead of Russianizing it. Luckily with how drunk he was he didn’t notice my delay as I tried to think of a name.

After Christina scrambled to finish her dinner, I told him we were going to use the bathroom. We did go to the bathroom, but there we talked about what our next plan of action should be. Christina had been messaging her boyfriend, who said that we should either take a taxi back to the hostel so he couldn’t follow us, or we could tell the waitress or manager he made us uncomfortable. I thought this would be great advice for the United States, but we were in another country where things don’t work quite the same. The chances of a taxi being nearby were not very high and I thought that it would be unnecessary to take a taxi. As to the advice about telling the manager or waitress, I don’t know the word for manager in Russian, although I do know how to tell them that he scared us. I had also been measuring their physical states in my head. The guy who had been talking to us obviously had some muscle on him; he was not a small man and just because he was drunk did not mean that that muscle wouldn’t be used. The only male staff member I had seen in the restaurant was very scrawny and the rest were small females. I decided our best option would be to get our coats from the coat check and slip out.

We did just that and it worked. We speed walked to the bus stop, but there was no sign of him following us. Even though we didn’t see him we wanted to get out of the area. Even if he had followed us I don’t know if he would have been able to keep up because he was so drunk that he was knocking things over and stumbling around, however I know that a really determined drunk person can accomplish a lot so it was good that we didn’t have to take any chances. As we got on the bus, I realized that it was more crowded then I had seen a bus in one of these smaller cities, but compared to crowded busses in St. Petersburg, there was definitely enough room on it for 10 or 15 more people. We got on the bus, but it seemed that other people who had been waiting for the same bus decided it was too crowded, so they continued to wait.

When we got back to the hostel I told Christina that I thought he had been married and was probably a relatively new husband who isn’t enjoying marriage. He was wearing a gold band on his ring finger on his right hand. I think I have mentioned before that Russian’s wear wedding rings on their right hand because there is an artery or vein or something that runs from your heart to that finger.

We were both very disappointed about this experience because it could have been a very good meal and an enjoyable dinner, but instead it had all been ruined by a drunk man.

It Wasn’t So Straightforward

06/11/14

When I arrived in Vladimir the night before, the first thing I noticed were the hills. St. Petersburg is a very flat city and since we had only traveled to other flat cities from there, I hadn’t realized that I missed uneven terrain.

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(Another example of poor understanding of painting buildings)

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(But they also have beautiful buildings – the blue one on the corner)

Christina and I had a late morning. Unfortunately the lady below me snored very loudly so I could not sleep well. I listened to rock music to drown out all of the noise she made and although that worked, I also know music interrupts peoples’ circadian rhythms when they are trying to sleep, so perhaps it wasn’t the best answer to my problems. That morning again we realized we didn’t have food for breakfast, so we decided to go in search of a café for brunch.

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(A random brick church we found on our wanderings)

We picked the café because it said it had a vegan option on the menu, which I was really looking forward to. When we actually looked at the menu we couldn’t find the vegan food, which was very disappointing, but I suppose I could have asked. At the café we both ordered blini and fruit, the blini was very good, but the waitress forgot about the fruit. When we reminded her, she apologized, but proceeded to only bring fruit for one person. We decided to share that fruit instead of asking again for more fruit, so although the situation worked out, but it was still very frustrating. To make the situation more unsatisfying, the waitress of course heard that we had accents and tried to speak to us in English instead. I guess this was her way of trying to be kind and make it easier for us, but I am here to learn Russian so I want to talk to the waitress and order my food in Russian, I don’t want her to talk to me in English. This caused me to later go on a rant to Christina (in Russian) of what I would say to someone if the try to speak to me in English at a restaurant again because I am tired of people always trying to speak to me in English when I am trying to practice my Russian. I said I would tell the waitress or waiter that I am trying to learn Russian and if they don’t speak to me in Russian and let me practice than I will go find a different restaurant at which to eat.

When we left the café, we spent the day wandering where we pleased in order to see the city, but making sure we saw a few key churches and other pieces that were important to Vladimir. The day started out misty, but as it went on, it turned into fog so that our wanderings were smothered in a pool of milky obscurity.

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(The Golden Gate)

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(The church off to the left of the gate)

The first place we went was to something called the “Golden Gate,” which we actually happened on by accident shortly after leaving the café. Only the top was gold, so I am still mystified as to why it was called the Golden Gate, but places don’t always have logical names. The gate was located in the middle of the street, and there didn’t seem to be a way to actually walk up to it since I didn’t see any crosswalks leading up to it, but I also felt that if I were able to walk up to it, I don’t know what I would do there because it was really just something to look at. Next to the Golden Gate was an unattractive dirt mound that we assumed served as an observation deck, so we took the opportunity and went up there. It gave a view of the side of the Golden Gate and the road below, so I didn’t really understand the point of it. The one building it did give a good view of was a brick church off to the left of the gate.

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(A church near the stone cherries and observation deck)

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(Looking out from the observation deck)

After some more wandering and finding another observation deck (upon which we found a large sculpture of stone cherries that I did not get a picture of because there was always a crowd around it), Christina and I approached this brick church to go inside. Inside it turned out to be a museum we had read about that we decided we would be interested in seeing if we found it, but that we didn’t want to specifically seek it out. I guess we found it. I am glad we found it too because it had some beautiful pieces inside. The museum was of lacquered boxes, embroidery and glass. There weren’t very many embroidered pieces in the museum, but I was okay with that because I had seen more beautiful embroidery in Lithuania. We were allowed to take pictures anywhere in the museum, but it was very hard to take pictures of the glass work because the displays had lighting that continuously changed. We probably spent half an hour in the museum, and it was beautiful but the tour groups made the experience very frustrating because it was a small museum trying to fit too many people.

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(Some examples of lacquered boxes at the museum)

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(This one reminded me of Swan Lake)

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(Some examples of the glass work follow)

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(It was very hard to take pictures of the glass because of the changing lighting and the mirrors placed behind the pieces)

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(Trying to not be in the picture here, but the mirrors make it difficult)

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By the end of the daylight hours, Vladimir became so foggy that we could not see the top of a church we visited clearly, and we could not see anything beyond another sightseeing platform we visited. We finished visiting all of the areas that we wanted to for the day and decided that trying to see anything at night would be almost useless because the fog was too thick.

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(A monument, I am not sure what to, but it had a different person on all three sides)

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(Notice as the pictures get progressively foggier)

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(We could only see clearly the objects that were within a few yards of us)

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(It made taking pictures very difficult – this is a church)

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(The front spire of the church after they lit it up for the night, the inside of this church was poorly lit, but very beautiful)

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(This is a different church. We went inside of this church the next day and it turned out to be a very poorly constructed museum)

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(The same church from a distance)

For dinner we went to a Russian restaurant that apparently brews its own beer. The menu was a bit confusing because it had the beer list as a list of dishes that apparently were supposed to go with the beer. In the end I ended up with a plate of shrimp off of this menu. I enjoyed the shrimp except that they still had everything on, so for each one I had to go through the same process of taking their shells off and it got very tiring towards the end.

A Train and a Pizza Parlor Game

05/11/14 

(The image is one of the only pictures I took that day, and I took it from the train).

On Thursday morning we got up at 6 a.m. to be ready by the time the taxi was scheduled to arrive at 6:30. I had hoped that we would be able to get our stuff together rather quickly and then eat some breakfast, but we ended up having to wait until we boarded the train to eat. The train ride was 5 to 6 hours from Yaroslavl’ to Kovrov, and the first leg of the journey was very enjoyable. Unfortunately as the train carried on along the countryside, it was required to pick up more passengers. At one of the stops, a whole group of Middle-Eastern men boarded the train. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were noisy and rambunctious and carried too much luggage with them. There is a weight limit of 33 kilos per person on passenger trains and they seemed to have a lot more. I am speaking of at least 20 men who each had this amount of luggage, they seemed to swarm in and take over the train. One of them thought it would be okay to throw one of his bags on top of my stuff, but even though I was flustered by the sudden influx of people I managed to tell him in Russian that that was not okay with me. I knew my friend and I would be departing the train sooner than they were and I didn’t want to have to dig my bag out. I also think that it is just inconsiderate to think it is okay to put your stuff on top of someone else’s without asking. What if they have something fragile in there?

The conductor did not like them very much either. He yelled at them quite a bit about how they were only allowed to have 33 kilos of luggage and how theirs looked like a lot more. He continued to yell at them as they spoke in their native tongue, telling them to speak only in Russian because it was rude to speak in a different language and he told them that their language was too noisy and not nice to listen too.

On long trips I cannot stay awake on transportation, so I slept most of the time even though it hurt my neck, but at least it helped the time pass. As we drew closer to our station, the same conductor who had been yelling at them men earlier was very kind to us and gave us updates on how soon we would arrive at our station. The cadence of his speech was very awkward and very hard for me to understand but I managed. I was glad to get off of the train and away from all of the noise.

All I had eaten so far was a piece of bread with poppy seeds (which prompted a conversation about Christina and me not being able to pass a drug test, which in turn gave into joking around about poppy seeds being a gateway drug to opium. I tripped over my words and the gateway drug to opium became a gateway drug to oatmeal. We go hard on oatmeal…), so when we got off of the train, we decided to look for a place to eat. We knew Kovrov was small, and initially we had planned to spend the day there walking around and seeing what a small Russian city was like. Unfortunately we did not factor our bags into the equation. We had to carry them around everywhere we went.

As we started our walk towards the street that ran straight outside of the train station, Christina’s wallet fell out of her pocket. Luckily she was able to pick it up and put it back in her pocket, but I thought for a moment that maybe she should move it if it fell out once because it might fall out again. Unfortunately I didn’t say anything. We continued to walk down the street and as we came to the end of the block and decided to turn around because we were not seeing anything more promising than what we had already seen, Christina realized her wallet had fallen out of her pocket again. We quickly retraced our steps again to see if it had been left on the ground (although I realized then that we didn’t check the corner we had just been standing on) but we didn’t find it. Christina started to become more and more agitated, which I understand, but I couldn’t deal with it because I hadn’t eaten. I asked her what was in the wallet, and after realizing that it was about 1500 rubles and her driver’s license, I agreed that it was unfortunate but that we needed to move on.

We went to a pizza place to eat because Christina said she still had other money. It was interesting to eat in Kovrov because it seemed as though they didn’t often run into people who speak English. We ordered a pizza to split (smaller than the regular size found in the United States). None of their pizzas looked normal exactly, but it was good to me since I was hungry. It is also hard to go wrong with pizza. We ordered cocktails with our pizza as sort of a comfort drink to Christina for losing her wallet (I think she was more upset about losing the actual wallet than the stuff inside it, but in general it not fun to lose things, especially personal items).

I remember part of the way through the meal she got a phone call from an unknown number and we both agreed that she shouldn’t answer it because how could someone get her Russian phone number? Since she didn’t pick up, they texted her a few minutes later, but her phone can’t read Cyrillic leaving the message to just be a bunch of boxes on the screen. I told her to forward the message to me to see if my phone could read it, and it could. Someone had been very kind and written to her in Russian that they found documents with the name Christina on them. She immediately called the number back, but the person didn’t answer. On the second try, a male voice answered, but Christina had trouble understanding him so she handed the phone to me. It was very hard to understand him because there was a lot of background noise and a woman talking too, but I got across where we were and what we were near and it was decided that they would meet near the train station. After hanging up, we waited for a bit to see if the man would call back when he got near the station, but eventually I sent Christina outside because I didn’t want her to miss this opportunity.

In the mean time I waited. I finished my portion of the pizza, but I felt like I couldn’t just sit there, so I ordered another drink which I made sure to drink very slowly. Christina returned probably after about 20 minutes with a huge smile on her face. All of the money and her license were still in the wallet. We looked in her wallet and speculated how the man had gotten her number, but the only thing I could find was a business card that had the numbers of program coordinators for our program back in St. Petersburg. He would have had to call one of those numbers first before being able to get Christina’s.

Christina ordered another drink in celebration instead of consolation this time. As we sat there, I found out that the man who had brought Christina her wallet was actually a young man. I thought it would have been an old couple, but it turns out that Russian’s are just nice people. Not that I thought they weren’t before, but they have helped us every step of the way on this journey.

Christina ordered a salad to conclude our meal, and we enjoyed seeing how long we could stay at the restaurant. The waiters and waitresses did not seem to become irritated with us, probably because we kept ordering new things. In the end the bill was smaller than a meal for two without drinks would be in St. Petersburg. When we decided it was finally time to leave the restaurant, I only had a 5000 ruble note, which is a really frustrating piece of money to have. It is sort of like a $100 bill; no one wants to accept it and no one wants to give you change for it. I decided to pay with it to see what would happen and have Christina pay me back later. The bill was less than 100 rubles for the two of us, but the change I got back was all in 100 ruble notes. There are two possibilities for the reasons behind this. Either the waiter just wanted to give me a hard time, or the restaurant genuinely did not have bigger notes, which I somehow don’t believe.

For the rest of the time in Kovrov we sat in the train station waiting.

The train ride to Vladimir was very short; it took only about 30 minutes. Before we left, we had looked up what transportation would take us from the train station to the hostel so we thought we were ready. As we sat at the bus stop outside the station in the cold watching bus after bus go by with the time, Christina started getting frustrated again. In the end we decided it would be good if she went back inside and looked up the transportation again. It turned out that a bus that had already passed us multiple times was the one we needed to take and we had been waiting for the wrong number the whole time, but at least we figured it out before the public transportation stopped running for the night.

To add a dark alley to a long day, it turned out the hostel was located in a small building in between apartment buildings, on a poorly lit side road. But, again, we made it safely and that is what matters.