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.

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.

My Last Day in the Motherland… For Now

16/05/15

The next morning I woke up at about 8 because I was set to meet a group of people at 11 so that we could all go to the post office and send extra stuff home. This was very important to me as I would not be going home after the program as was the initial plan when I had left the United States 11 months earlier. Instead I would be traveling around Europe again, this time alone, but that meant that I could not bring with me two 50 pound (23 kilo) suitcases, because every time I wanted to check that extra bag, it would cost me an arm and a leg, not to mention the struggle of taking public transportation with those, and then trying to bring them from wherever I was dropped off to the hostel I would be staying at in any given city. It is not realistic to take a taxi to and from the airport in every location, because taxis become pricy, especially for tourists because the drivers like to increase the price when they see you are foreign. I had bought a carry-on suitcase when I went to Kazan’ a few weeks previously because I knew I would need it.

I spent my morning packing up one of the suitcases to send home and logging all of the contents (because you have to write them down during the shipment process, in addition to getting all of the paper items together that I wanted to send home. I ended up with a backpack full of notebooks and textbooks to send, and my suitcase. I think there were only three students who took advantage of the opportunity to send stuff home. Russian post is really slow, so I wouldn’t expect these things to arrive home for about a month, but at least it is not too expensive. It was about 5500 rubles to send home my 16 kilo suitcase and two packages of paper items, each weighing about 4 kilos (maybe about $100, probably a little more, and even though it seemed like a lot, I had to remember that each time I checked that extra bag, it would cost about $75, which would add up quickly). The whole process probably took about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete because of the paperwork that had to be completed. Today, (about 2 weeks later) one of the packages of books has arrived home. The books do not have tracking numbers, although the suitcase does. I have checked the progress of the suitcase multiple times, but the last entry was when it got accepted through customs and into shipping in St. Petersburg, which also happened about two weeks ago. I can only assume that it is on a ship somewhere out at sea (it is cheaper to ship by land, so this is why it would be at sea and not in the air) on its way to the United States. Perhaps I will stop checking for progress for a week in the hopes that more information shows up the next time I look.

After I turned these items over to the Russian post, I went in search of a few last minute souvenirs even though I had just shipped stuff home to make room and so that my suitcase wouldn’t be overweight. I spent many hours arranging and rearranging the contents of my bag so that everything would fit, but making sure to put the heavier items in my carry-ons. In the end I had one 50 pound bag to check, one carry-on rolling bag and a backpack. When I finally finished packing I hung out with my host mom for the rest of the day and watched Russian television. She called a taxi for me to get to the airport after spending time calling all of her friends and asking if they knew the best taxi company. (A very Russian thing to do. Any time something interesting was on television, or my host mom wanted to tell someone some news, or maybe there was a holiday, she would spend a long time calling up all of her friends to tell them about it or ask whatever question she needed answered). My flight was around four or five in the morning, but I had to leave my host mom early at about one to get to the airport before the bridges went up. By taxi it only took about half an hour to 45 minutes to get to the airport, so I had to wait at the airport all night.

As I was leaving my host mom’s place, she told me that I would always be welcomed back and that if I ever came back to St. Petersburg, to come visit. I did leave her contact information for me, but I have never seen her use a computer. I know my host dad uses one to skype, so perhaps when he returns the information will be more useful.

What Goes Around Comes Back Around

The End of the Semester, Again.

15/05/15

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(End of the semester boat ride)

I would like to say that when I started writing this blog, I did not really know where I was going with it. I like to write and knew that some people close to me said they wanted to read about my travels, but I also knew that when I write I often give a lot of detail. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing in that those who choose to read my blog get a better picture of what see, or can better understand what I am experiencing, but bad in that each post ends up being a little longer, and then I don’t get around to writing some other posts because I run out of time. That has definitely happened since I started writing this blog, and despite my attempts to try to stay caught up, I still fall behind and have to jump to the next part because I can never catch up. So here I am again, skipping over months of my experience abroad and jumping to the next part of my blog.

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(They fed us little appetizers and champagne)

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(Smolnii in the distance)

My second semester abroad ended on May 15th, but today is actually May 31st. I wanted to write about my last few days in Russia going into my summer travels. Although I have spent most of my time in Russia this year, I have not written a lot about Russia, because that is when I am in class, and tired and out of time.

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(Peter and Paul’s fortress in the distance)

I think first I will give a little bit of background on what I did this last semester in Russia concerning academics, since that is the reason I am abroad in the first place, to study. This last semester in Russia I took five classes again. Usually in the program that I chose to participate in, people only take four classes their second semester in Russia.  I don’t know why my program is set up like that, but I suppose they have their reasons.

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(Inside the boat)

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(Coming to an end)

Before I realized the situation I was in this semester, I decided to pursue that fifth class because the idea of taking any less than 16 credits in one semester seems kind of ridiculous to me (with four classes I would have only been taking 14 credits), but more importantly I thought that more class time exposure to the language would help me in the long run. So, as the semester started I sought out approval from both my study abroad office back home as well as my study abroad program.

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(It is tradition to let all of the balloons go)

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(Even though it is not so great for the creatures of the earth)

At the beginning of the semester, on the first day, we took a placement test so that we could enter into our proper level of Russian. Here is where the situation that I mentioned I had been in, really started. The previous semester about 75 students participated in the program, while this semester only about 30-35 students did due to ongoing troubles between the governments of the United States and Russia that cause American parents to be over protective of their adult children, but that is their call and not mine. The larger program meant that the previous semester there were more levels available for the wider range of students. This second semester the level I should have been placed in, no longer existed, and I was the only one stuck in such a situation. It is true that the capabilities of each student in a class were much more widespread than they had been the previous semester, but they were not really inconvenienced by this. My placement test score fell directly between two levels, so at first I was placed in the lower level because they did not know what to do with me. I tried this out for a week as they instructed us to do if we were unsure of our placement, but the class was too easy for me, because I had already learned this information, so I decided to try out the upper level class. Although it was manageable, it was obvious that my grasp of the Russian language was lower than everyone else in the class. My vocabulary was obviously much weaker than the rest of the class, and my understanding  and ability to use some of the grammar was not as complete. Regardless of these inconveniences, I knew that I could learn something new in this class, which is what I was looking for, so I stuck with it. This meant that on top of having pursued the fifth class and being approved to take it, I was also in a level of Russian that was higher than where I should have been.

The classes I took were Russian Grammar and Conversation, like I had done the previous semester, as well as Advanced Translation, 20th Century Russian Literature, and Russian Civilization. Second semester students took Translation instead of Phonetics, since we had already completed that course the previous semester. Of all the courses, Translation was the hardest. No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I definitely improved, but the class progressed as well.

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After climbing St. Issac’s Cathedral)

On the last day of class – the 15th of May – I had two exams; one in Translation and one in Conversation. I had woken up at about 6 that morning because I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to study. After the exams we had our closing ceremony, and then our program took us on a boat ride around the rivers that run through St. Petersburg. Boat rides are a very popular tourist attraction in St. Petersburg, and after having spent so long there, I still had not been on one, so it was good to go on one the last opportunity I had. By the time the boat ride was over I was exhausted. I had stressed myself out worrying about the test, which makes me tired, in addition to waking up early when I don’t usually go to bed at a reasonable time during the school year as it is. I returned home (to my homestay, which was really like a home to me) and really just wanted to nap, but because the semester was almost over I decided to spend time with my host mom since I did not know when I would see her again.

My host dad had been gone for quite a while towards the end of the semester because he has to travel for work, and unfortunately could not make it back before I left, so instead of a goodbye dinner with both of them, I had one with just my host mom. It was nice, but also very sad. I had lived with her for so long, that it was really like leaving home and not knowing if and when you could come back, whereas when I left the US it was kind of terrifying, but at the same time I had an end date, a date I would be coming home. (Of course, this date has changed since I was initially supposed to return to the United States after my program ended, but plans change).

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(The Stairs. There were quite a few).

I had a couple good friends this semester, so my friend Grisha (Gregory), our friend Nastya (who is from St. Petersburg), Max and I decided to spend that evening together climbing to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral (where I also had not yet been), because it has a really good view. Afterward, we went up with Max’s friend Dasha and went to a bar for a drink. We talked about staying out all night, (staying at the bars or clubs in St. Petersburg after midnight tend to become an all-night endeavor because the bridges to the islands open at a certain time to let ships pass through, and since many of us lived on islands, we would not have been able to return home) but I had stuff I needed to do in the morning, and they weren’t willing to commit to the whole night – which I had to do if I stayed out past midnight because I lived on an island. After that decision was made, I left the bar in a rush so that I could catch one of the last buses home, almost forgetting that I would not see these friends again for a long time.

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)

A Russian Morning to You too

21/12/14

(I am sorry for the delay in posting. The combination of me being under the weather and choosing to sleep instead of write at times, combined with the “free wifi” at previous hostels that my computer won’t actually connect to, I seem to have fallen behind. I hope to start posting twice a day, or 3 times every 2 days to try to catch up, but I don’t think these extra posts will be regular, only when I have time to write something extra).

The next morning we woke up and packed up since we had to check out by 10:00 a.m. When we finally made it downstairs to check out, we decided it would be ideal to ask about the two bags that were supposed to come into the airport that day. Kenzy and I talked to the man at the desk in Russian while Ali waited nearby. Another man showed up who also spoke Russian and, although the bags had not yet arrived, we ended up having a very friendly conversation with them about Kenzy and me studying Russian in St. Petersburg, which prompted one of the men to pull out his phone with the comment that St. Petersburg was very beautiful and look, he had pictures.

This conversation led to the exchange of numbers and other needed information in case the bags did show up, but in such a way that these men were willing to work with us and call us if anything did arrive.

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(First glimpse walking into the Christmas Markets)

It was not a particularly cold day, especially when carrying luggage around, but gray clouds covered the whole sky making pictures difficult. The first thing we did was make our way across town to the next hostel. We had to stop at a central metro station for a while in order to orient ourselves, but moved on to the hostel after that. This hostel Kenzy had mentioned that she and Ali had been planning to stay in it for a while. It was located in part of a castle (what was once the location of the Imperial Stables, but had been turned into an international hostel) that was central to Nuremberg in what used to be a militarily strategic location, which meant it was on top of a hill. Since Kenzy was the only one who had her bag at the time, she experienced the full impact of the hill. Ali and I only carried what we had used as carry-ons on the plane. Even without the bags to carry up the hill, it was not a small hill. Once we made it inside, a snappy German man immediately informed us that we could not check in until 3:00 p.m., which we did not care about, we just wanted a luggage storage room so that we could set our stuff down and actually enjoy our first day in Nuremberg.

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(First glimpse of the castle)

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(There were horse drawn carriages giving people tours of Nuremberg, pulled by some of the biggest horses I have ever seen).

After we were granted a storage room, Ali called the airport where her luggage was supposed to come from and I tried to call the number I had been given by Aeroflot representatives. Throughout the day we tried this number quite a few times and never had any luck with someone picking up the phone. I tried that and other airport numbers enough times that I ran through the money that Kenzy had put on her Russian phone should something like this occur. I used her phone because I did not have mine with me.

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(We came back down to the markets to find them more crowded, but not as crowded as they would become).

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(Different parts of the market had different names, this was the children’s section, but good food belongs to everyone, so we visited it).

We spent our day wandering around the markets and trying some food here and there, but since we couldn’t try everything in one day we spent some time scoping out what we might want to try in the following days. I had woken up feeling a little under the weather and with that on top of the worry of not having my luggage returned to me I just felt like the day was dragging by despite how much I tried to enjoy it. At one point we stopped by Starbucks to ask for free water and take a break from walking around, but we were on our feet for the majority of the day. Even when eating, we would buy street food and eat it wherever we happened to be.

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(In the children’s area)

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(There were lots of children)

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(and things for them to do)

Although we spent most of our time in the markets there was the occasional wandering into non-market areas. One that I remember particularly well was a bridge over a small river. I seem to like scenes with water, tree branches and birds or ducks on gray days; I think they are rather picturesque, as cliché as that term is. What was before me in that river was exactly that type of scene.

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(The ducks in the river were either black or white, no in-between)

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At the end of the day we had potato soup served to us in a bread bowl on a napkin, that we also ate standing up. It was very good, but, although I enjoy bread bowls, I always wish there was less bread and more soup because I never eat all of the bread anyway. Regardless, the soup was very good on a cool night, even though it had pieces of bacon in it which I don’t like.

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(As the day got darker, the markets started lighting up)

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(The light shining through reflective objects)

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(You could better see the Christmas decorations)

After eating dinner we walked back up the long hill to the hostel to check in. When we checked in we asked if we could barrow their phone to make a local phone call and they said yes, but once it was past 8:00. When we got up to the room, there were six beds, two of which had already been taken. There were two Asian girls who had basically taken over the room. They had done laundry and hung their clothes on hangers in any available area in addition to taking a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom for their own personal use. It was a little bit odd, but not the end of the world.

We headed back down to the front desk at 8:00 and made the necessary calls to the airport again, which was, again, useless. This time we also called the men at Hotel Moldova, which required me to talk on the phone in Russian.

In the end I had to call the man at Hotel Moldova about 3 or 4 times because the baggage hadn’t come in. During one of these calls it sounded like he had called the airport for me and had inquired about when my luggage would arrive. Either that or the airport called him so that he knew what to tell me. Finally he told me to call him back at ten and the luggage was in. At the time when I went down to make the ten o’clock phone call, Ali came down as well in order to call the airport again to see where her bag was. Her bag had already arrived at the hostel, which we found when we got down to the front desk. Kenzy was kind enough to venture all the way across Nuremberg with me to keep me company while I collected it, which I appreciated very much since it was dark and Hotel Moldova is not located in the best area. It took about 24 hours for the people who work for the Frankfurt airport to make the 3 or 4 hour trip that Kenzy and I made the night before to drop off my bag. I was just glad I got it back all in one piece and that the Russian men had been so accommodating and helpful throughout the process.

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(On the way back up the hill, we stopped to take pictures)

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(Really only as an excuse to take a break though, although the lit-up buildings were pretty)

On the way back I got to experience what it was like to travel with the luggage and later climb the hill with it. On the way up the hill I started singing Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne. Specifically the part that goes, So far away, I wish you were here… in direct reference to the location of the hostel at the top of the hill and me at the bottom of the hill with a heavy bag. At this point Kenzy joined in and, although we didn’t realize we knew so many of the lyrics, we sang a good portion of the song as we climbed up the hill.

The Start of Our Journey

20/12/14

This initially was written as a continuation of the last blog post, but it became too long.

The next morning I got up at 7:30, showered, ate breakfast and finished packing everything I could not pack the night before. I left my house at 9:00 (my host-parents did not bother to get up to say goodbye, but I left them a box of chocolates and a note) and went to the airport using public transportation. My flight was not until 12:30, but 12:30 is the middle of the day on a Saturday so I did not know how airport traffic would be. I arrived at the airport around 10:30, just in time for check-in to start so I didn’t have to wait around with my luggage. After making it through security, all there was left to do was wait. As I sat and waited in the Pulkovo Airport I worried about my connecting flight. Perhaps I had booked the two flights too close together.

My first flight left ten minutes late and arrived in the Sheremyetevo Airport at 1:40 p.m. and my next flight (I thought) was at 2:30. This left me 50 minutes to make it through the airport, including passport control and security again, from a domestic terminal to an international terminal. Those 50 minutes included the time I would have to wait to leave the plane, which would be at least ten minutes from my position closer to the back then the front. I was able to skip over a few of the rows of seats I would have had to wait behind because while other people were still pulling their coats on, I already had my luggage out of the overhead compartments and was headed down the aisle. As soon as I had enough space to walk, I was literally running through the airport following the signs that told me where to make an international connection.

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(I didn’t take many pictures because we were traveling all day, but I liked these clouds with the sun shining on them).

When I arrived at passport control I was out of breath, but there seemed to be no line so I was able to walk up to one of the desks almost immediately. However, when I got there, the man at the desk seemed to take forever with my passport as though he was confused by some information he was receiving from it. It wasn’t until after I was through passport control that I realized a small line was forming at the security check point. Even though I had already been through security in St. Petersburg, I had to do it again in Moscow because of the rules of domestic and international flights. I remember standing behind a man, being that annoying person who is literally tapping their foot and huffing with impatience often enough to make anyone want to tell you to stop. I made it through security without much problem. I am accustomed to flying enough that I rarely make mistakes going through security, although it is hard to keep track of which countries want your shoes off or on or want you to take your laptop out, but other than that I think that airport security is generally straightforward with similar requirements. (There was one male in my study abroad program this last semester who, as we were preparing for travel week and flight information was being provided for us, said he was usually stopped at the airport for his contact solution because his containers were too big. To this, Liz promptly replied that many of us wear contacts and don’t have a problem, you just have to put it in your checked bag, or use travel sized containers. The stupidity of some people when it comes to these things astounds me sometimes. Airport security is not that hard, even if it is a little bit confusing and intimidating at times).

After I made it through security, I was running again. When I booked the flight, I did not remember booking something with such a short layover. After I found my gate I was dismayed because I thought they had already boarded the flight and closed the gate. It was about 2:05 p.m. when I got there, 5 minutes before the time I thought the gates were supposed to close and I didn’t understand why they had closed early. I spent another few minutes wandering around the terminal in a state of worry and consumed with frustration, looking for an Aeroflot representative who could help me.  They don’t have the information desks in Russia like they do in airport terminals in the United States where you can get in line and ask for help if you need it. Instead I had to find another gate that was going to have an Aeroflot flight. I finally did and told a lady about my problem, explaining in rushed, and probably awful, Russian that the gate had already closed and that I had been on time to my flight, not even knowing if she could help me. At first she told me that my gate was 21, which I told her I knew and explained again that the gate was closed. She looked at my boarding pass again and told me that the 2:30 was the boarding time and not the departure time and the plane had not even started boarding yet. I guess it is better to run through the airport thinking you will be late and be on time then it is to actually be late.

I sat down for a bit and waited and bought (accidently) carbonated water, which is very popular in Russia, because I was so thirsty after running through the airport. As boarding time drew closer, I stood up to move towards the gate and ran into my friend Kenzy, who I would be traveling with. From this leg of the journey we would be together for the rest of the way. We exchanged our stories of our days traveling so far, where I ran through the airport while Kenzy sat in TGI Friday’s and had a sundae (because one of our friends had been talking to her about it before that and it sounded good) while surrounded by ALL of the other Americans in the terminal, also sitting in TGI Friday’s enjoying their lunch.

The plane ride was like any other plane ride with as many comforts and discomforts as one can handle. I think that Aeroflot gives its passengers a bit more space than other airlines and one plus is that they ALWAYS give you food, even if the flight is only an hour long, where as I have flown other airlines like SAS and not eaten all day because they only give you tea and coffee for free. One of the reasons that Aeroflot gives you space and food is because they have a terrible reputation for being an unsafe and generally not very good airline. They have been working for a while (I am not sure how long) to change their reputation, but that takes time and effort, so they have just been trying to make their airline that much better than other airlines. On our 3.5 hour long flight we were offered a full dinner with wine or juice, as well as tea or coffee to drink after if we desired.

During this flight, the girl sitting next to me decided it would be a good idea to paint her nails. I don’t know why she decided to do this in such close quarters, but that coupled with the young boy kicking the back of my seat made for an unpleasant flight. Coupled with these discomforts was the constant worry that because my connection would have been tight if I hadn’t bothered to run from one terminal to another, I wondered if my luggage would make it on my next flight.

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(The sun setting over the wing of the plane was beautiful)

Kenzy and I were on the same flight, but we were not sitting in the same part of the plane, so when it came time to get off, I was swept along by the rest of the crowd while she was at the back still waiting to get out. As I made my way up to the passport control counter in Germany, the officer asked me if I was traveling alone, so of course I mentioned Kenzy. Then I was asked why we weren’t together, because apparently this was bad, and I tried to explain the situation where we had been sitting in different parts of the plane. Kenzy told me later that she was stuck behind a Russian babushka, who, despite the unidirectional flow of people, asked directions to the luggage pick-up area and was disappointed that she had to go through passport control before getting her luggage. The officer then proceeded to ask why I was acting nervous, which was only because I was hot wearing a full jacket in an airport and worrying about my luggage.

When I did finally make it to the baggage claim area, I found that my bag had indeed not arrived. I waited around for a small amount of time to see if Kenzy would come out, but I thought it would be more efficient if I went ahead and declared my lost bag. When I was finished giving the information needed, I went out and found Kenzy.

From the airport we made our way from one bus to a train station to another bus station. We had flown into Frankfurt because it was less expensive, but that meant we needed to take a bus to Nuremberg. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus was delayed 40 minutes, so we went back into the train station to eat dinner.

We had not been looking around for very long when we found a place that sold burritos. Okay, so they weren’t Mexican burritos, but we had not had burritos since we had been in the United States.

When we went out to the bus stop around the new departure time, it took us a bit of confusion, but we finally found the bus and it actually left exactly 40 minutes late.

We arrived in Nuremberg rather late and had to make our way from the random location the bus dropped us off to where our hostel was located. It was an adventure and a task to complete this in a country where we did not speak the language. The metro was decorated in orange tiles and because the maps were the only empty parts of the walls, many of the homeless people chose these as optimal sitting locations. This meant that we had to find a map with no homeless people below it that we could contemplate until we figured out what to do. The trip from the bus station to the hostel took us probably around an hour since we had trouble figuring out the maps. We ended up in a poorly lit area, wandering down the street we knew the hostel was on. The hostel was called Hotel Moldova, although it was definitely not a hotel.

Kenzy knows a few more words in German than I do, however many people in Germany know at least a little bit of English which is how we had managed to get by up until this point. When we went to check in, we first tried English and then German, but our little bit of German was not enough at this point. Clued in by the name, Hotel Moldova, a Russian flag on the outside of the building and directions in Russian, Kenzy thought to ask if the man at the desk spoke Russian. He did, so we were able to communicate with more ease, although it was odd that we encountered the need to use Russian on our first night in Germany.

We went up to our room and I was introduced to Ali for the first time. She had studied German when she was little and after we told her our experience with the man speaking Russian, Ali commented that she hadn’t thought her German was as rusty as they had made it seem.

Ali’s bag was also lost in transit, so the only complete bag we had was Kenzy’s. Both Ali’s and my bag were supposed to arrive the next day, but I had not been told when the next day mine was supposed to arrive, which was a problem since we were going to another hostel the following night. It also was also problematic because I could not shower or change clothes and I did not have my toothbrush packed with me.

The room was small. Three beds were crammed into it with the sheets, blankets and pillows already in place. Hostels that make the beds for you make me uncomfortable because usually the linens are placed in a clean stack on top of each bed for the users to order themselves. There was a sign on the door that the hostel had become non-smoking earlier that year, but we could still smell stale smoke on the sheets covered up by washing with scented fabric softener or something and perhaps sprayed with another agent to help mask the scent. In one corner was a small television with a DVD player attached. The hostel had no wireless internet and we did not try to turn on the television to see what else it didn’t have to offer. Although I did not particularly like this hostel, we had all made it to the same location with a place to sleep and I could say, with a little bit of adventure, that the trip was officially starting.

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.

Now It’s a Memory

08/11/14

I am entering finals week, but have been pretty much swamped since I returned from travel week. Despite my intentions to keep up with my blog, I obviously have not managed, but I will keep trying to post something interesting every now and then. In the meantime, I had started writing about the Sturday we left to return to St. Petersburg, so let me see if I can finish it in any sort of interesting manner.

Our last day of vacation was Saturday because we wanted to have a day back in St. Petersburg to recuperate. Since we hadn’t gone to Suzdal’ the day before, we decided to go that day, even though it was risky because our train left at 6:50 p.m. We woke up earlier than usual to try to give ourselves more time in Suzdal’ since it would take an hour to get there and an hour to get back on the bus.

Even after making sure we woke up earlier than usual, we didn’t make it to the bus station until about 10:45 a.m. which allowed us time to buy our tickets for the 11 o’clock bus since the busses left every half hour.

We arrived in Suzdal’ a little before 12 p.m. and had the option of paying a few extra rubles to the bus driver to be driven into the city center, which we decided to do. The first thing I remember as we started from the bus station to the center of the city, was a small field that seemed to take forever to pass in the bus, which made it seem longer than it actually was. Directly after the field we started passing a residential area that seemed very colorful. The one house that stuck in my mind was lavender. I don’t remember details; I just remember the color because it seemed so odd at the time.

Suzdal’ is a small, but very touristy city. In the main part of the city, there is a row of tables set up under small canopies (to keep the rain out since this was obviously a rainy time of year) each hosting a variety of souvenirs ranging from your typical magnets and mugs, to more traditionally cultural related pieces such as head scarves or woven shoes that peasants used to wear. A few yards in front of these tables facing in (to create a sort of walkway where you can buy something on both sides) are people selling the most delicious looking honeys and jams as well as fruits and vegetables. I remember being very tempted to buy honey then because it looked so delicious and I love honey, but I didn’t because my host parents feed me so much that when would I have time to eat it when I returned anyway?

I can’t say that there is anything about Suzdal’ that particularly struck me at this point, it was really a place of beauty, fun to enjoy without pushing ourselves to seek out whatever fabulous cultural experience the place had to offer. The cultural experience was in going to Suzdal’, and experiencing what a touristy city in Russia is really like. (I am not counting Moscow and St. Petersburg in the experience of a touristy city because although they are big cities that attract tourists, it is really not their sole purpose.

One place my friend and I went was out behind the row of buildings that seemed to stand in front of us. It was a bit foggy that day as it had been in Vladimir, but behind the buildings was a cliff that looked out over a small valley with a village of beautiful wooden houses by a small stream. On the other side of the cliff was a group of churches rising out of the mist, all with their own style or color of domes.

Eventually we decided it was time to get lunch because we would have too head back to Vladimir to catch our train soon, so we found a café. I ordered a pasta dish with a white cream sauce and seafood in it. Even though the seafood wasn’t bad, the undercooked noodles smothered in such a heavy sauce just did not make the meal appetizing. However, despite my disappointment with the meal, my friend and I decided this was a good place to ask about a specific drink they only make in Suzdal’. Reading online, it looked as though the version of it sold on the street was either not genuine, or maybe not of a good quality. It advised people to ask their tour guide where to buy it, but obviously we did not have one, so we asked the waitress at the café. She proceeded to ask someone else who asked someone else, but finally we got an answer.

Walking around the building we had already been in we went to the back where there was only mud for a path and nothing particularly noticeable. In the back of the building was a room with ladies behind a counter displaying many different types of Medavuha (the drink in question). I wondered at first why there would be a random room in the back of a large building to sell something sought out by tourists. But as my friend and I walked in to the room, there was noise coming from a doorway. To our right was a sort of old-fashioned banquet hall with people dressed up in older styles of clothing thoroughly enjoying themselves, and probably drinking Medavuha.

I bought a bottle for my host parents and Christina and I bought a bottle to share. After that we walked back to the bus station (better enjoying the colorful houses on the way, although I did not find the lavender house, but the field was not as long as I had imagined it to be).

After we arrived back in Vladimir, it was a whirlwind to catch a bus, make it back to the area of the hostel, buy food to eat on the train, go to the hostel, carry all of our stuff back to the bus station, and make it to the train station. Of course after making it to the train station came the ordeal of trying to figure out the electronic tickets again. I feel sorry I rushed poor Christina, but you can’t be late to something like a train. It doesn’t work.

We did get to the train station in enough time, which is good, and we didn’t have to wait around for too long before we boarded.

On the train we both had the top bunks of our compartments, and unfortunately it was very hot again. The only way to cool down enough was to lay down as still as possible in whatever clothing we brought with us that would give us the most room to breathe (a skirt, a baggy shirt, whatever). We shared the compartment with two older women, of course one of the snored horribly. After one of the women left, a Chinese man took her place (they give each new passenger a new set of sheets and pillow cases). He also snored. I think I eventually fell asleep, but it was definitely hard to stay asleep.

09/11/14

We arrived back in St. Petersburg about 11 hours later (at 5:40 a.m.). The public transportation does not start until 6:00, but while waiting for the people before us to get off of the train and then wading through the masses going in and going out, by the time we made it out of the train station, the transportation had started.

When I arrived back at my homestay at around 6:30 or 6:45, my host mom got up to welcome me back and offered me tea. (Which I gladly took because in such a hot train, Christina and I did not have enough water to stay properly hydrated). Then she promptly went back to bed.

That Sunday I don’t know exactly what I did but I definitely tried to study since I hadn’t done much of that over break, despite my intentions. That day of recuperating concluded my trip to the lesser-known cities of Russia.