Through Snow and Fog, from Munich to Prague

26/12/14 Another Travel Day

Waking up the next morning, the first thing I saw was the snow covered ground. Even though we had not had a white Christmas, our boxing day decided it needed to be white. We had to get up and ready to be able to eat breakfast and then check out by 10:00 a.m., which is the common check out time at most hostels and hotels. Our train was scheduled for 12:44, so we decided to head straight to the train station because there was not time to do anything before our travel to the next city started. (I think I said that our last train left at 12:44 too but was late. I was wrong, although that one was late; it actually was scheduled to leave at 2:06. That is why that by the time we got to Munich, the daylight had gone and we did not have time to do much of anything).

This train ride would not be another easy one hour train; it would be six hours long, which meant we needed entertainment and snacks. Kenzy and Ali wanted to buy a deck of cards because none of us had thought to bring them for the trains that we would be taking from city to city. Unfortunately the only playing cards we could find in Munich cost 5 or 6 euros, which was more than they should cost anywhere, so we decided not to buy them there. Instead, Kenzy and I bought more candied nuts, which we proceeded to start eating before we boarded the train.

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(One of the very few pictures of the day, but this is of the slushy snow as we made our way out of Munich)

Over the six hours we spent our time napping for a short while and playing many games that did not require cards. The games included the type where you choose a category such as books, movie titles, song titles, or something else that you can think of many of that subject. Someone starts and whatever letter the title they said ends with, you have think of a title that starts with that letter. You also cannot reuse the same titles and the word “the” does not count in titles. We played this game first with song titles and later book and movie titles.

Another game we played Kenzy said was a German game she learned from her grandmother, although I cannot remember the name in German. We played it in English of course. As many people as you want can play, but each need some way to write information down. Usually this is written on paper, but we used our phones because we did not have paper to write on. There are six categories that are as follows: city, country, river, name, job, animal. One person goes through the alphabet as quickly or as slowly as they want in their head so others cannot hear what letter they are on at any given time. Eventually someone else needs to tell the person going through the alphabet to stop. That person tells everyone the letter they stopped on. At this point someone with a timer starts the clock for a minute and a half and everyone must try to think of something in each of these categories starting with the mentioned letter during that time. After the time is up, a score keeper must write down each person’s name to keep score on a piece of paper. If you get a correct answer in a category that no one else gets, you get twenty points. If someone else picked a different thing for that category and both answers are possibilities, you each get ten points. If you both picked the same thing in that category that is correct, you get five points. If you could not think of anything you get zero points for that category. For example, if “E” was chosen, I could write something like this:

City: Edinburg

Country: Ecuador

River: Euphrates

Name: Eleanor

Job: Entertainer

Animal: Eel

If someone else chose Edinburg for their city too, we would both get five points. If only I chose Edinburg for the city that starts with E, then I get ten points, but someone else could get ten points too if they chose a different city. If nobody else could think of a city that started with E, then I would get twenty points.

The river category is the hardest letter because rivers are not as commonly known as any of the other categories. It is interesting to play though because you can learn something you did not think of from the people around you.

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(In a restaurant we would later eat at)

Eventually we got to Prague and had to find our way to yet another hostel. There had been a slight booking problem, so we were only staying in this hostel for one night and then moving to another hostel the next day. Each time we go to a new city, we go to the information counter at the train station and ask them to point us in the direction of our hostel (what transportation would be the best to use and so on). Ali had led the way in the German cities because her German was the best, but now we were in an Eastern European city. Some of the words in Czech were similar enough to Russian that Kenzy and I could guess what they meant, which meant that some people probably spoke Russian if they did not speak English, but Prague is a very touristy city, so we didn’t encounter much of a problem using English.

The metro part of our journey to the hostel was pretty straight forward, but after we exited the metro station and found the tram station we were supposed to use, we did not know which direction we were supposed to go in. We saw a hotel nearby and went inside to ask them for directions. Hotels are very useful for travelers, even those who are not guests at any given one. The receptionists are usually very accommodating and willing to help and hotels either already have the information you need because they host tourists all of the time, or they can look it up for you. The inside of this hotel was done in a more old-fashioned style that was very pleasing to the eye. I remember that there were also some very tempting-looking cookies sitting on a table probably to welcome guests, which we were obviously not invited to enjoy because we were not guests staying at the hotel. The receptionist was very accommodating and pointed us in the correct direction – which was either direction; it just depended on whether we wanted to walk uphill or downhill with all of our luggage in tow. We chose to walk down hill, but when we got off at the top of the hill, there were multiple streets upon which the hill went down, so we found another hotel from which to ask assistance, again.

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(On the way down the hill to the hostel)

When we finally were headed in the correct direction down the hill, we didn’t realize how far up the hill we had come just to walk down the hill. It took us at least fifteen minutes to walk from the area that the tram had dropped us off to find the hostel. The only good part about this walk was noticing the restaurants on the way down the hill, and the view when there was a break in the buildings. Nearing the end of our walk, Kenzy and Ali kept questioning whether or not we had missed the hostel. I had pulled the map up on my GPS back at the train station (a trick I found out back in Kazan’, if the map was already loaded on wifi and you walk away from the wifi and don’t try to fiddle with the map too much, you can still see directions, your location, and your destination’s location), but I knew that a couple times my map had mislead me, yet I still wanted to walk further down the hill to see if we would find the hostel. We did find it pretty quickly after this; it was just getting into the hostel that turned out to be a problem. Most hostels have the front door open for customers, but because this this desk only had a receptionist at it during a few hours of the day, the door remained locked unless someone pressed a button from the inside to allow you to enter. The man on the other end of the speaker who allowed us to enter did not seem to understand that once we entered we could not hear him on the speaker that was outside. Either this or he still wanted to talk to us to let us know that our keys were in a drop box near the desk since no one was at the desk at this time to inform us of this.

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(Also on the way down the hill)

When we got to our room, we met two very nice Indian girls who would be our roommates for the night. We were a little confused at first because we thought the hostel had given one of us and one of the Indian girls a number for the same bed. In fact it turned out that two of us had been booked in one room and one of us in another. There was an extra bed in the 5 bedroom dorm because another friend was supposed to have traveled with the Indian girls, but could not come at the last minute. It shouldn’t really have mattered because it was only for one night, but it was a little disorienting that we had been booked in separate rooms because, although there is a disclaimer that says this can happen if the hostel is booked too full, I have never experienced this happening.

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(Pasta doesn’t make for great pictures, but it was really good)

In the end we all ended up sleeping in the same room because of the girls’ friend who left the extra bed. After we dropped our stuff off, we decided it was time to grab dinner and then head to bed. Because the Czech Republic is in the European Union, some places will accept Euros, but the country has its own currency that most places prefer you to use, so we had to find a place that was willing to accept Euros since we had not yet withdrawn crowns. This place ended up being an Italian place that we had spotted on our way down the hill. We all ordered different pasta dishes, and in the end, a Czech beer. For some reason Czech beers are something that are recommended for people to try, and they are very good, but I guess it is one of the lesser known beer countries unless you live in Europe (maybe now they are becoming more well-known). Dinner over, we went back to the hostel and got ready for bed.

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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).

From Nuremberg to Munich

23/12/14

In previous posts I apologize, I say I am sorry I could not post, I was sick or there was no internet. I know, oh but I know that you don’t read this, so why do I bother. I write my day down on paper and I see that you are busy and you do not read it. I was told I should write a blog. We will read it, they said, and yet, nothing. I am not offended or hurt, who wants to read the unedited ramblings of a young woman on her travels? Stories told on paper are different, are harder, so now, I write for myself. If these letters on paper bore you, you took too long, now they are for me.

On Tuesday we woke up early enough to make sure all of our belongings were packed up and could still have time for breakfast. Ali and I had been half joking about taking some of the bread with us for the train. I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to bother, but Ali took a couple of pieces and wrapped them in napkins then slyly slipped them into her bag.

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(Entering the castle grounds)

After placing our luggage safely in the storage room, we proceeded to explore the castle that our hostel was a part of, but the part that we had not yet ventured into. We could only see the outside of it without paying, but, although castles can be really interesting, we decided not to pay to enter it. Perhaps there would be other opportunities for seeing more magnificent castles or areas. I have been in so many tour groups and on so many guided tours at this point that I tend to shy away from them unless they come highly recommended. Some guided tours can be really good, or the place the guided tours take you can be very interesting, but I didn’t think that in a castle such as this that it would be interesting enough to be worth my money.

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(The edge of our castle building from another area of the castle)

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(The castle had some interesting buildings inside the grounds, I think that middle one was a well)

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(The castle had a good view… of rooftops)

We had talked about taking our luggage down the hill with us after exploring the castle, even though we had a little bit of time to kill, so that we wouldn’t have to climb back up the hill. In the end we decided to climb back up the hill, which I was glad about because my luggage becomes very heavy after carrying it for some time, especially since I have Ali’s laptop in addition to my own in my backpack are resting on my shoulders.

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(More pictures of the castle)

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(The castle had a tower. At night a Christmas tree would light up in front of the already illuminated tower).

Instead of going straight back to the Christmas markets where we had spent the last few days, we spent some time wandering in some streets that did not have the markets. Since I still wasn’t feeling particularly well, I was not thrilled by the extra walking, but it was nice to see something other than the market fronts and shiny lights.

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(Double headed eagles, so common in Russia and Germany)

During our wanderings we happened upon a bakery of sorts. Our quest for peppermint had still not been completed but we found candy canes in this bakery. Unfortunately when I tried one, they turned out to be cherry flavored instead of peppermint. So, the quest continued.

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(Leaving the castle grounds)

Around lunch time we headed back to the market to buy something to eat before we headed up the hill to get our luggage so we could catch our train. This was the first train we would get on where we would use our Eurail passes which looked like useless pieces of paper that actually cost about $500 each. We weren’t sure exactly how they would work because people online suggested different methods in terms of their use, but our plan was basically to get on the train, pull out the pass when it was needed and write in the correct information.

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(Looking back at the castle)

Walking from the hostel on the top of a hill down to the train station was probably a 20 minute walk, which was not fun with all of my luggage and not feeling well on top of that. On the way to the train station, Kenzy and I bought some candied nuts again to eat on the train, Ali doesn’t like nuts, but she was happy with her bread. From all of the selections of candied nuts in the Christmas Market, I had only tried the vanilla almonds, but I liked them enough that I figured I did not need to try another kind.

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(A pretty side street spotted on the way down the hill)

This train ride was only supposed to take an hour leaving at 12:45 and arriving at two-ish because it was a high speed train. However it ran at least 40 minutes late so we arrived later than we had planned to. It did not spoil our travel plans that we arrived later than intended because our plan in each city has been to just take each day as it comes. We are traveling for over a month and two of us already experienced being under the weather on this trip, so it is better to take it slowly and enjoy as much as we can within reason. It would really ruin our plans, however, if one of us became too sick to leave their bed.

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(I probably forgot to mention we visited another church. It was large and beautiful of course).

When we arrived at the train station in Munich, it took us a while to find out where to go because of the different information desks for different purposes. When we finally found out, it was at least an hour later. We took two trams to get to our hostel. The actual trip from the train station to our hostel did not take an excessive amount of time because trams move rather quickly from place to place, but it seemed like forever because we were all carrying our luggage.

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(What can I say, I really like the high ceilings)

When we got to the area of the hostel, it was not hard to find because it was a huge building with international flags painted in circles on the front of it. The outside of the hostel was very nicely painted and the reception area did not seem too bad either. However, when we got to the halls that the rooms were located off of, it was not as well presented, but it was clean enough and we could sleep there, which is what counts.

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(Stained glass and the high ceilings. This church was interesting because inside it had small posters that told how the church was almost completely destroyed during World War II, but members continued to go to services even when it was in ruins and over time the church was slowly rebuilt, but regardless, members still went. That’s faith).

After checking in and finding that they had the most ridiculous system to unlock the door. It took us at least fifteen minutes to unlock the door, by which time Kenzy had already headed back down to the front desk to ask for another demonstration on how to unlock the door. I had unlocked the door accidentally after fiddling with it for a while.

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(Christmas decorations in the church)

When we finally got inside, we had a room with four beds, so because our group is only three people we wondered if they would room another random person with us.

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(I tried to take a picture of the front of the church, but it was too tall).

For the rest of the day (because it was pretty late by this time) we planned sort of what we would do the following days we were there. We also ran to a grocery store we had seen on our way to the hostel because we were in the city around the time of a major holiday and didn’t know when stores would be open.

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(Time to move on to the next city)

Other than that, the day was drawing to a close and Christmas was almost upon us. No other person showed up to take the empty bed that night, but we still had a few nights ahead of us.

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)

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.

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.

A New Journey (02/11/14)

My new journey was spent in the company of my friend Christina. We left the hotel in Moscow at about 5:30 p.m. because our train was supposed to leave at 7:05 p.m. We knew we would have extra time to wait at the train station when we got there, but it was good that we did because we spent at least 15 minutes trying to figure out where our platform was and what we were supposed to do with our electronic tickets. We were lucky the workers at the train station were so willing to help us out, but as it was, we had to ask multiple people what to do and where to go since the directions were all in Russian and we didn’t always understand everything they were trying to tell us. In the end it worked out, and we knew we were on the right train because the train left at exactly 7:05 p.m. Russian trains are never late.

This train ride was only a few hours, so we arrived in Yaroslavl’ (our first destination) at 10:21 p.m. We had looked up options for transportation online prior to making the journey. Yaroslavl’ public transportation is supposed to stop running at 10:00 p.m., so we decided our best option was to take a taxi. Usually at train stations or airports in Russia, there are men standing around outside asking if anyone needs a taxi ride. It was no different in Yaroslavl’, but when we gave the address for the hostel we had made reservations at, none of the taxi drivers seemed to know where it was. This was very odd to me because it is a taxi-driver’s job to know where hostels and hotels are, or at least to have a gps to find it, but I guess this is Russia. Eventually one man did show up who seemed to know where our hostel was located, and he took as straight there.

The hostel seemed very nice and well put-together, but there seemed to be a few discrepancies. Usually at hostels they provide towels to accompany the sheets, but here they only gave us a small hand towel. When I went to the bathroom, I saw no hint of a shower, so I wondered if they hadn’t given us real towels because they had no showers. Later Christina found that I hadn’t been observant enough and that half of the stalls in the bathroom were bigger and did indeed have showers in them; we just didn’t get towels to go with the showers.

The second problem for me was the beds. As I mentioned in my last post, I had thrown my back out that morning. The beds at the hostel were a thin mattress place on top of wire. My back did not like it, but eventually I was able to fall asleep despite this and one other inconvenience. My friend and I stayed in a 10 bed, gender neutral room because it was the only room left open when we booked it. On this first night there was a man already sleeping in the corner. Throughout the whole night, he snored and coughed very loudly. I kept wondering why his coughing didn’t wake him up, but it definitely woke the rest of us up. Another guy who stayed in the same room, on a bed near me got mad at the guy in the middle of the night. He said these in Russian so I didn’t understand them completely, but he kept making comments to the man about why he was there, and how rude he was being. I understand that one cannot control themselves if they snore, or if they are sick and have a cough, but I also think that one should not stay in a hostel in close proximity with other people if they are sick and risk infecting other people.

Since Yaroslavl’ is not as large of a city as St. Petersburg or Moscow, it seems that every other person in our hostel except Christina and I, were Russian. I didn’t mind it, I had a good time practicing my Russian with the staff, and the other people in the hostel basically ignored us.

Thankfully, our first full day in Yaroslavl’ held a much more rewarding experience than a room with a coughing and snoring man.

Returning to Kazan’ and Moscow

27/10/14-02/11/14 Russian Travel Week with the program

It appears that all of my previous work that I have been meaning to post has vanished, so I will have to start from the beginning of last week.

Last week we had Russian travel week with our program, but we didn’t fly out until Monday night. On Monday we had the same class schedules that we would every Monday, which was very unfortunate for me, especially since that Monday and the week before was the week of midterm exams. So, on Monday I have four classes from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and an hour of transportation in each direction. I also had a midterm in my Russian Conversation class, so by the end of the day I was stressing myself out wondering if I would make it home in time to finish packing last minute accessories before heading to the airport. To top that off, the program refused to return our passports until the last possible minute. As in, they have had them since the program started and continued to hold onto them to get our visa extensions until that Monday, and then informed us that we couldn’t pick them up until the our classes for the day had ended. Many of us have traveled before and are used to holding on to our passports, as well as feeling uncomfortable without them, so the fact that they keep treating us like incompetent children concerning our passports is rather frustrating. I must say this part of the program was not very good planning on CIEE’s part.

I ended up getting to the airport early so I probably didn’t need to worry about having enough time, but I always think that it is better to be safe than sorry.  Many of us students waited around at the airport for at least an hour before any of the program directors made it there themselves.

The flight left at a time close to midnight and landed in Kazan’ very early in the morning, which caused many of us to be tired for the rest of the trip. We probably didn’t get to bed until about 4:00 a.m.

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(A wall in the old Tatar part of the city)

I was very excited to return to Kazan’ since I spent my summer there, but I was very disappointed with the trip. The first day we went on a useless bus tour around the city the first time I was in Kazan’ and went on a bus tour, it was actually interesting, but this time the only parts of the city they really showed us were many different sports complexes. No one is really interested in visiting a foreign city and seeing all of their sports facilities, it is not interesting for us, but that is what the program chose to show to us. For lunch, they brought us to a mall way outside the center of the city, which made me very angry because it stripped every one of the opportunity to try local Tatar cuisine, and me of the opportunity to return to cafes that I had frequented over the summer. The mall had typical chain mall restaurants, and nothing that was what I wanted.

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(Sightseeing at the end of the bus tour)

I remember the one fun part of this bus tour was at one of the sports complexes. We went to the roof of one of the buildings (I have no idea why) and my friend Sophia and I spent our time sliding around on a giant frozen puddle, pretending to ice skate. The tour was so disappointing that we did this to entertain ourselves. Later when my friend asked about the point of the sports facilities part of the tour, she was told that it was part of their culture (since Kazan’ is also the sports capitol of Russia), but I guess we just have different definitions of culturally significant sights to see. By the end of the bus tour I was at the point of walking back to the hotel since I knew the city well enough to do that, but for some reason I ended up sticking it out.

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(Chandelier in the Kul Sharif Mosque)

That night, I took some of my friends to a Tatar café I knew so we could eat dinner. I was glad to hear that they really enjoyed it since Tatarstan and Kazan’ mean a lot to me because of the experience and people I knew there. After dinner we stopped by a small store or a “продукты,” which literally translates to “products,” and I picked up some chak-chak, which is a Tatar dessert. That night I spent time with some of my friends in my hotel room, sharing the chak-chak with them and just enjoying each other’s company.

The next day had a tour of the Kazan’ Kremlin in it. I think the Kremlin is a wonderful place to visit in Kazan’ because it is so beautiful, but the tour was four hours long, and I had already been there. But at least the tour was much better than the tour had been the day before. At lunch time after the tour, I took some of my friends to one of my favorite cafes in Kazan’ that I had frequented with my friends over the summer. I made them try my favorite dishes of Lagman (a sort of noodle soup that isn’t really a soup and isn’t only noodles) and Plov (a rice dish). I had them order Lipioshka with these dishes, which is a common way to eat them. Lipioshka is a naan like bread that is from a different part of the world. The food is very hard to describe if you haven’t seen or had it before.

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(Kul Sharif Mosque inside of the Kazan’ Kremlin)

After lunch we wondered around the city and returned to the Peter and Paul Cathedral so that my friends could see it. While we were there we ventured into the bottom part of the church, which I had not seen before, so it was interesting for me. When we left the church, we wandered into some souvenir shops to look around, but shortly after we had to go our separate ways because other people had prior commitments. I had plans to meet with my friends Laison and Alfia, whom I had met over the summer, for dinner. We had a very nice dinner, making fun of a group of guys who were getting drunk on the other side of the restaurant, and just enjoying one another’s company.  They had a class to get to and I had had a long day that was not yet complete so I decided to take a quick nap before I left to go visit my host mom.

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(One of my favorite buildings in Kazan’, I believe it is the center of agriculture. In the archway – you can’t see it here – is a tree that holds up the arch that was designed after the Lord of the Rings came out)

At my host mom’s house, she fed me second dinner – homemade manti – I don’t normally like manti but my host mom knows I like it when it is homemade. It was nice to be able to catch up with her, and just talk about everything relevant and irrelevant like we used to, and paint our nails together.

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(A wedding palace)

The last day we went to the Raifa Monestary (which I had already been to when I was in Kazan’ before, and didn’t care to see again). I did enjoy it more this time than the last time, although I think that was in part because we didn’t spend as long there as I had the last time. In addition, it is always enjoyable to see the same place at a different time of year.

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(On the way to my host mom’s house I always see the entrance to the Kremlin)

After Raifa, we had some free time before we had to go to the train. We walked around the rinok and bought scarves and other items like food that would be useful on a 12 hour train ride. In the end we wore ourselves out from walking so much, which was good because we had no choice but to sit or lay day for most of the 12 hours on the train.

I have done this 12 hour train ride from Kazan’ to Moscow before, but this time CIEE decided to give us private compartments. I was in a compartment with my friends Sophia, Helen and Lacy and we ended up watching a cartoon movie about a half-white zebra named Cumba. I have never heard of this movie before, but it kept us entertained for a while and made us practice our Russian in an offhand way since the movie was in Russian.

Eventually we all went to bed, although it was so hot that I couldn’t sleep well at all which didn’t bode well for the schedule the next day. Helen and I tried for about half an hour to open the window in hour compartment, but it wouldn’t open, so we finally gave up and tried to sleep. In the morning (after I had finally fallen asleep) we were all unpleasantly awakened by a Russian lady going from compartment to compartment, violently opening the doors and saying “доброе утро” unnecessarily loudly.

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(Some buildings we stopped to take pictures of during the bus-tour in Moscow)

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(During the same stop but in another direction. I was probably too tired to listen to what these buildings actually were)

Our schedule for the day (Halloween by the way) was of course a bus tour of the city. Our tour guides tour went something along the lines of “on the right you will see *insert a building or a monument,* on the left you will see…” and so on. So, since I was already tired, I promptly fell asleep until we had to get out of the bus to see something. One place we did get to see that I enjoyed was Swan Lake, the lake where the ballet was composed. But other than that, it was not very interesting.

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(Looking across Swan Lake)

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(A row of ducks in Swan Lake)

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(They were pretty, so I took quite a few pictures of them)

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(The lake had a thin layer of ice over most of it, but here the ducks seemed to have found a place to swim)

Later in the day I took a nap because I was just too tired to do anything else (such as wander around the city), but at night I wanted to do something for Halloween. Some friends invited me to go out in the city with them for the night, but after my experience with taxis in Berlin I didn’t want to risk staying out so late that I would have to pay for a taxi to get back after the public transportation stopped running, so I declined. Instead I watched a horror movie with some other friends and tried to go to bed at a reasonable time.

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(The entrance to Red Square. Our tour guide made sure we knew that it was translated incorrectly into English because the word for “red” in Russian can sometimes mean “beautiful,” and this is suppoed to be Beautiful Square)

On November first we went to the Moscow Kremlin. I had already been to the Kremlin last time I was in Moscow, but this time we had a tour of the Armory, which I hadn’t been to before. The Armory, although it didn’t have much armor in it, was very beautiful. It has a collection of gifts from royalty of other countries to the tsars of Russia, as well as a lot of old coronation attire, crowns, and ornate carriages from the tsars. The rest of the time in the Kremlin we spent walking around the grounds, and then visited one church in Cathedral Square.

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(A view of Moscow State University from the grounds of the Kremlin – the white building in the back)

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(One cathedral in Cathedral Square)

After the Kremlin, we went to eat at an Italian restaurant because we had eaten breakfast at about nine, and did not eat lunch until around four. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “lunchtime” and that people get hungry. The lunch was very reasonably priced for Moscow, and it was very good, probably because we were all so hungry. I had a seafood pasta dish. I love seafood, and I really wanted it at the time even though we weren’t close to the sea so it definitely wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I still enjoyed it. To accompany my meal, my friend and I shared an appetizer (it came after the meal, so I don’t think Russians quite understand the idea of appetizers) it was a sort of cheesy bread but much better since I don’t really like cheesy bread. It was more spiced than cheesy, which is probably why I enjoyed it but I probably shouldn’t have been eating bread and pasta in the first place due to my minor gluten intolerance.

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(The Bolshoi Theatre, I took a picture because it was on the way somewhere)

After returning to the hotel, my friend Christina came to Helen’s and my room and hung out with us. We had a very fun time talking about whatever subject seemed to come up before we decided to wander around Moscow at night and find a club. We ended up walking a lot because Moscow is big so the nightlife is very spread out, needless to say I didn’t enjoy going out in Moscow as much as I did in Kazan’ or St. Petersburg, where you don’t have to walk a mile to find the next bar or club. In the end we ended up taking a gypsy cab back to the hotel (an unregistered cab. They are very common in Russia, but I would never take one alone).

The next morning we had to pack everything up because it was our last day in Moscow and we had to check out of the hotel by 11:00 a.m. Unfortunately, as I was getting ready, my back went out and I still had to finish packing and I had an excursion to go on even though it hurt to walk, much less breathe. We went to a history museum, but I don’t remember anything in particular because I didn’t have a very enjoyable time walking around with a hurt back.

After the excursion, Christina and I immediately returned to the vicinity of the hotel and got something to eat. I promptly fell asleep on the couch for about an hour before we decided it was time to catch our train for the next week’s journey.

On the Train to Kaunas

30/08/14

The word “Kaunas” reminds me of the word “Shaurma,” only because both words have this “a” and then the “u” sound that is so strange to the American tongue. If a person were to Americanize either if these words, the “a” and the “u” would end up being a combined sound. However, the meanings of the words are very different. Kaunas is a city in Lithuania, and a Shaurma is a Middle-Eastern burrito-like food. Why am I thinking of these two things? Right now I am on a train to Kaunas for the day, and it made me think of them. Being on a train reminds me of being a child. Whenever we would sit at the tracks waiting for a train to pass after violin lessons, we would count how many cars there were. Sometimes there were over 100 train cars, but other times we only saw around 40. These were always freight trains though, in the United States one rarely sees passenger trains, much less has the opportunity to ride one. In Europe I have heard that trains are a very common form of transportation, and in following with this information the train tickets are very reasonably priced as well. It only cost 22 Litas for the train ticket to Kaunas, and usually they are only 18 Litas. This means that usually the ticket is around 7 U.S. dollars.

I rode with Guoda on the way to Kaunas so I told her about my impression of the train I rode in Lithuania compared to the trains I rode to and from Moscow when I was studying in Kazan’. On the way to Moscow, for an overnight trip that took 12 hours, my friends and I rode in what I believe was the last car of the train. The car was filled only with seats, and many of my friends said later that they had had difficulty sleeping in an upright position. It used to bother me too, but then I started flying more often. In the train on the way back, we had a better car, it had beds. In my opinion the beds were basically shelves because they were not very wide, and they were not very long. Each space had one bed over another, and the only part that indicated that they were beds was the bedding that accompanied them.

The train in Lithuania looked very modern in comparison. I don’t know how many cars were on this particular train, but from what I could tell it was a very short train for the purpose of going quickly, and each train car had a top floor and a bottom floor filled with seats so that as many people could fit as possible. Guoda told me that the train we were on was modern, and that when the universities start up again it becomes very hard to get a seat on the train so some people stand the whole hour in-between the cities. She says whenever she looks at the train schedules, there are trains that take an hour and a half to go between the two cities, but this one only takes an hour. Guoda tries to only go on the trains that take an hour, because why go on a slower train if there is a faster option?

Guoda told me to get from Vilnius to Klaipeda (another city in Lithuania) takes five hours on a train because there is no railway that goes through Kaunas, instead the train goes all the way around the city to get to the next. She said if someone was going to go to Klaipeda it would be smarter to take a bus because even if they are slightly less comfortable, a bus will take four hours instead of five.

As the train was making its way to Kaunas, I strained my neck in every direction to see out the different windows around me. As I was looking out the window behind me, I noticed a cow lying down next to the tracks, and a white speckled horse trotting about, around the cow. That reminded me that the few times I have been in a bookstore in Vilnius and I’ve found a small section with books in English, one of the few books they have is titled “Horses of Lithuania,” or something. I only opened it once, but it gave me the impression that Lithuania has a long history of breeding and training horses.

Guoda is from Kaunas and is returning for a small time over the weekend to visit her parents, so I will return to Vilnius alone tonight. Tauvydas on the other hand is on a camping trip with his father. I don’t know when they are supposed to return, but maybe he will already be back when I return. (Tauvydas was not back when I returned last night, and when I left to go find lunch today neither of them had returned. Last night copious quantities of rain fell from the sky for an extended period of time so I don’t know how Tautvydas and his father stayed out camping in such conditions. Perhaps I have just lost a bit of my taste for camping since it has been so long since I have gone).

As the train kept going, we passed through a forest which inspired Guoda to tell me about the Lithuanian people’s love of forests. She told me that this weekend she had wanted to go to the forest to pick mushrooms since it had rained a bit this last week, which I guess affects the mushroom supply. I’m told Lithuanians love going to the forest to pick mushrooms. She said she called all of her friends to see if they could go because she wanted to go in a car so they could go further into the forest, but all of her friends already had plans, some of them to pick mushrooms with their parents. Guoda said she might pick them when she got to her house because when she was younger, that’s where she used to pick them.

Guoda told me that many people who live close to the border of Lithuania will go work in one of the Scandinavian countries because there, their wages will be around three times higher than if they worked in Lithuania, so after some time working they can come back and do nothing for half a year. She says that when the Lithuanias go to the forest in these countries, there are so many berries and mushrooms to pick. The Lithuanians always ask the locals why they do not go to the forest because there is such a plentiful supply of good things to pick there, and the locals tell them that they don’t go because they can buy it in the store. Guoda says she thinks that the people from these countries probably wouldn’t recognize what is good to pick, and what is not. The more I hear about “these countries,” the more they sound like the United States. I told Guoda that Americans know how to pick mushrooms and fruit, but only from the grocery store. I think Americans for the most part would be pretty clueless picking berries and mushrooms in the forest, especially mushrooms.

I did go with my host mom in Russia once to pick berries in the forest, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the berries were cleared out before we arrived. I did spot a few leftover berries, but there weren’t enough there to pick for the purpose we wanted them. If we had found enough berries, they would have been used to make jam, but since there weren’t any there to find, we spent the time enjoying tea in the rain instead. My host mom told me that every time she goes to visit her parents there is always bad weather, but that the weather where they live isn’t normally bad in the summer. It rained just for her.

When I first arrived in Kaunas, Guoda sort of told me where to go, but I still wasn’t sure. I felt like I walked forever before I found the foot street I was looking for, but I think that it was just a combination of being hungry and walking through areas that made me a little bit uncomfortable that gave the walk to this street the feeling of being longer than it actually was. When I walked back to the train station later, I realized the walk really was not very long. It was lucky that I found the street when I did. I felt like I had been walking too long, so I pulled out my phone because I had some pictures of maps with places I wanted to go marked on them, and since I was hungry I decided to look for one of the restaurants I found online. I stopped to look at this map on a street corner, and it turned out that where I was, was marked on the map. After I realized this, I walked a few paces around the corner and ended up on the foot street I had been looking for.

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The night before I spent some time looking up various attractions in Kaunas that might be worth visiting, but I ended up abandoning those plans to experience Kaunas more as Guoda described it to me with the foot street, the old town and the rivers. The first part of the foot road is completely straight with two rows of trees down the middle that give it an illusion of being endless. At the beginning of this part of the road is an old white cathedral. I did not go to the cathedral until I was getting ready to leave Kaunas because it was on my way back to the train station, and by then it was closed. I stopped to take a few pictures of the outside, but the trees that ran down the center of the street were in the way.

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I think I have said this before, but even if I have, I will say it again. I think that Americans tend to drink more water or juice or just anything than people in these countries (by “these countries,” I think I mean European countries and Russia, but I haven’t traveled extensively enough to be sure of this). I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at my host mom’s house I was really thirsty, but I couldn’t communicate this properly because in Russian, to express thirst, they say “I want to drink.” They have a word for “thirsty,” but I am told it is generally only used when talking about actions such as watering plants. For instance, “The plants are thirsty.”

I feel like I am always thirsty here, but I can’t just go to a store and buy a bottle of water to drink because, first of all, that would get expensive (in the United States I would just find a drinking fountain or ask for a water at a Starbucks) and, secondly, they are lacking public bathrooms here. In the United States I drink water, coffee and tea all day long because I know I can always find a bathroom and it’s healthy to stay hydrated. Here I know I am definitely not drinking enough. I drink maybe four glasses of liquids a day, and that includes coffee, water and tea (I don’t really drink anything else). I was very thirsty all day in Kaunas, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I disregarded my thirst and appreciated my time there anyway.

At the end of the long, straight stretch of road for people to walk on, the road turns to the left and the texture of the street changes. When the road turns like this, it is the old town of Kaunas. I say that “the texture of the street changes” because stones were used to make up the street and they felt uneven and strange underneath my feet. If someone shuffled their feet as they walked (which unfortunately some people do), they would surely trip. Since I am not used to streets like this because most of America seems to lack that “old town” feeling, it actually takes some concentration to walk on these streets. This is not a statement coming from a generally clumsy person either, but I think that part of my difficulty comes from my tendency to walk quickly.

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The old town is very beautiful and I had a good time looking at the buildings and decorations that are so different from what are found in modern towns. Unfortunately there isn’t much to do in the old town if you aren’t planning to go out to eat or shop. I wasn’t planning to do either of these activities, so I continued through the town until I found a river. Guoda told me that if I walked far enough, there is a place in Kaunas where the two largest rivers in Lithuania combine into one. I didn’t initially find the place where one river met the other river because, at first, I only found one river. I wondered if perhaps I had ended up somewhere completely different than the area Guoda had described to me. I decided I didn’t want to worry about it, and that I would enjoy myself anyway, so I sat on the grass and watched as quite a few sets brides and grooms walked around with photographers, as well as a couple getting professional pictures taken with their toddler. I remember being very tired as I sat near the river watching the day go by (I really didn’t sit there that long, but if felt like a long time).

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Eventually I dragged myself and kept walking. It was only about ten minutes later, as I continued down the same path I had been walking down before, that I found the place where the two rivers meet. There were many couples walking around here, and I realized it was sort of symbolic. In a place where two rivers meet to become one, couples are spending their time enjoying each other’s company, and in a sense becoming one as well.

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If I had a friend with me who knew about Kaunas I would be able to write more about the city, but alas, what I saw and heard is all I have to offer. It was a nice change for me to go to another city for a day. I have been getting too comfortable in Vilnius, since I am not in school right now, slowly wandering the streets and enjoying the culture and cuisine. Since I have spent so much time walking around the streets in Vilnius, I know the area around where I am staying very well, but I know there is always more to see that is either where I haven’t thought to go yet, or out of walking distance. After going to Kaunas for one day, I think it would be easier to learn the streets there than it is in Vilnius, but Kaunas is also a smaller city than Vilnius.

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(A picture of a random couple walking away from the area where the rivers meet).