Prague

Salut à tous et à toutes!

I’m sitting in my apartment wrapped in a million layers, alternating between mango juice and my favorite Smith tea as I have tragically caught a cold. Less tragically, I am using said cold as an excuse to write this blog instead of cleaning my bathroom!

Two Friday’s ago, I awoke to a text from one of my teachers saying that my classes with her on Monday were canceled and an email from another teacher saying my classes with her on Tuesday were also canceled. I then went to my Friday classes when another teacher informed me that my classes with him were also canceled on Monday. This left me with a five day weekend. When God blesses you with a five day weekend, you do not just sit around your apartment the whole time! After a quick internet search, I found that Prague was the cheapest destination for a next-day plane ticket. I’ve heard a ton of good things about Prague and so was excited to spend 5 days there!

I made quick arrangements, told my roommates I was off (they were so jealous), and made my way to Charles de Gaulle for the impromptu adventure.

Day 1:

I stayed in the Czech Inn (see what they did there?), which while a bit of a walk from the city center, was a great hostel! Felt more like a hotel than a hostel. After arriving and dumping my bags I began exploring the city. It took no time at all to discover that Easter in Prague is celebrated much the same as Christmas. According to a tour guide, the Czech Republic is ~75% atheist, but Easter is traditionally a very important holiday and the commercialized version remains. I loved this because there were several Easter markets throughout the city! It was like Christmas markets all over again, but less cold.

The Czech traditionally paint beautiful Easter eggs that are for sale. Each region has a different style, and there are more modern styles too. The markets also had quite a variety of street food. From sausages, to grilled cheese (not sandwich, just literally cheese on a George Foreman), beer was everywhere, there was this very strange fried piece of dough with garlic, ketchup, and cheese (Langoš), and the MOST delicious pastry called trdelnik. I continued eating through Wikipedia’s “List of Pancakes” but was severely disappointed by the potato pancakes here.

All I did Day 1 was wander and eat. (I did not eat all of these in day 1 though!!!!)

Day 2:

This was a Sunday. I went to an English-speaking church in the morning, which while nice, was dull. Afterwards, I went to a gym with a really cheap drop in rate (~3 euros) called Fitness Centrum. I then attempted to go the Gastronomy Museum but I think it is closed. Happily, it was right next to a Patagonia shop and I spent wayyyyy too much money on a great jacket that was a great price!!!

Famished from shopping, I had a hot chocolate/drinking chocolate from Choco Cafe which while delicious, reminded me in little time that I do have a small chocolate intolerance. Before heading home, I watched the little show on the 600 year old astronomical clock in the Historic Square. I had the BEST fresh pasta of my life that night at a restaurant called U Bulinu.

Day 3:

Day 3 consisted of the Castle District. I started at the monastery that is at the top of the hill. The monastery itself was not worth seeing but the view was great! I proceeded to Petrin Hill Tower, which is a mini Eiffel Tower with a view over Prague. There was a bit of line to get in, but it was a good view!

After a quick coffee break, I went to the castle grounds to see what was there. I timed it right for the changing of the guard, which was kind of cool. The castle area itself was fine. I wouldn’t go there again, but I was glad to have seen it. I got lucky with the sun and stained glass in the cathedral, which was nice. Afterwards, I was hungry and decided to have a late lunch. I had goulash! Does that not sound so Eastern European?! Goulash is meat cooked for a long time in a paprika broth served with a roll. It was pretty good. Everything in Prague is so cheap, that I would have been happy even if it was bad (6 euros for the plate and a beer at a sit down restaurant). Restaurant called U Knihovny. I ended the day by wandering around Letna Park, where there are some great views of the city.

Day 4:

My last full day in Prague started with a trip to the Mucha Museum. It was the perfect size, in and out in about 45 minutes. I then climbed the historic center tower, which had great views of the old town.

I then took a city tour. I don’t really care for the tours very often, but I was running out of other things to do. I was the only one there, so it was a private tour which was kind of cool. I was pretty tired after the tour, and ended up back in my hostel where I took a long nap. I’d been logging 12+ miles a day of walking plus my workouts… time to nap! There is a really well known vegetarian restaurant I went to for a late dinner, called Lehka Hlava. It was really good! I ended up sharing a table with two Americans my age since it is a pretty popular restaurant and I didn’t have a reservation. They were very cool people, I ended up going out with them after dinner, which was really fun! Nice way to break up a couple days alone. I stayed up way later than I had expected to and celebrated my last night in the way of the Czech – with Pilsner!

Day 5:

I spent the morning at the Museum of Communism in Prague before heading to the airport. It was an interesting and well done museum… just about the length I like (~1 hour). Worth going to and learning about how communism affected the day-to-day life of the Czech people.

20160315_114642
Flat Jane liked Prague too!

All in all, Prague was awesome! Cannot recommend it enough. It was definitely worth the sizable dent in my bank account 🙂

A bientôt,

Amy

Cologne

I’m addicted to Christmas markets. Like addicted. And Germany is supposedly the place to be when it comes to Christmas markets.

20151205_105517

You know what one of the best things about living in Lille is? You can hop in a car and depending on the direction, you can go to five different countries within 3-4 hours (the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Luxembourg, and Germany). So whats a girl to do other than high tail it to Germany to partake in Christmas festivities?

Cologne has not one, but SEVEN Christmas markets scattered throughout the city. I only had one day there, because I went with a tour group that provided a there-and-back bus trip for only 35€ from Lille. This was great, because it meant we went straight there (whereas on the train, or a bus, you will have to make connections) and it was cheap! The one day limit did not prevent me from getting a lot done, however.

The number one priority of the day was obviously the Christmas markets, but Cologne also has the #1 most visited tourist attraction in Germany, the Cologne Cathedral, and several nice museums. I spent the morning getting a sense of the markets (i.e. deciding what to buy), then went to the cathedral and a museum, then returned to the best markets to buy some stuff and eat dinner.

20151205_182009
From the Cathedral market

Let me tell you, German Christmas markets are magic! The ones in Cologne had so many lights, decorations, good food, and general festive-ness.

20151205_121038
The Angel Market

Of the markets in Cologne, I went to 6 of the 7. I will say that the Christmas Avenue market was the worst of them all. My favorite was the St. Nicholas’ Village market, and then the Cologne Cathedral market, they had the best decor, vendors, and food.

20151205_173423
St. Nicholas’ Village market at night

So what exactly are Christmas markets all about? There are plenty of gifts to buy, but I think the most important part is the food! Drinks including coffee + hot chocolate (spiked or not), mulled wine, and beer (for Cologne, this means the local brew, Kolsch).  Food including local favorites and standard market finds. Various wursts (bratwurst, currywurst, etc.), crepes and waffles, roasted mushrooms, spatzle, kartoffelpuffer (a fried potatoe pancake served with applesauce), and flammkuchen (thin pizza type dish) can all be found.

The drinks all come in reusable mugs you have to pay a deposit on. Each market has a different mug, so I kept my favorite as a nice little souvenir. I also visited NINE different food booths in one day…. so many foods and so little time 😉

In terms of items that can be purchased, there are many different things being sold! Popular items were: wool/knitted clothes and accessories (great hats and gloves!), Christmas decorations and ornaments (especially nutcrackers), wooden goods, candles and candle holders, jewelry,  cookie cutters, toys, and regional food specialties.

20151205_160022 (1)

Outside of the markets, I toured the cathedral and the chocolate museum. Both were interesting and worth dealing with the crazy crowds! (Shoutout to Grandma May, at the chocolate museum, I watched them make the Lindt truffles you always give us!!)

All in all a great day, very scenic, very crowded, and very filling! I really want to visit Bavaria in southern Germany, and this just made me want to go more.

A bientôt,

Amy

 

Sweden

After visiting Oslo, I was off to Stockholm (& Uppsala), with my main goal to visit one of my best friends from college, Svea. Svea is an au pair in Stockholm now and it was so so good to see her! My time in Stockholm was really nice because I stayed with her and got to do more normal life things than a hostel/tourist type experience.

Everyone in Sweden is highly proficient in English. The kids she nannys (granted the parents lived in the US for several years) are really good at English, and all the adults can speak it very well. To me, this is really interesting because I have always felt hesitant to just jump into speaking English with people who have a different native language. In the States, there is fear of being an egotistical American (at least for me) by assuming everyone speaks English, but what I have observed in Europe is that it is the most common language spoken. Yes, French/Spanish/German/Swedish etc. are spoken in their respective countries, but English has the most crossover for various countries. I was talking to some Swedes about how well everyone spoke and they basically said it is necessary to learn English, because Swedish is limited to such a small area, and most places people speak at least some English. I feel very lucky to have English as my native language, but I still feel a bit uneasy about just jumping into English if I don’t speak the regional language – I feel a bit rude/entitled.

Day 1:

The first day was spent helping the kids do artwork and catching up with Svea. I was a novelty, so they were well behaved! Later that evening we went to a viking bar (Aifur’s)! Definitely touristy but very fun nonetheless. We drank mead and beer and enjoyed the decor. I want a viking drinking horn!

Not the best picture, but you can see the viking boat candle holder, and the fur covered bench seats.
Not the best picture, but you can see the viking boat candle holder, and the fur covered bench seats.

Day 2:

This was the main day to explore Stockholm. We started the day by going to the Vasa museum. To get there, we took a ferry. I really lucked out with the weather when I was in Sweden, the ferry ride was beautiful and a great way to have a view of the city.

From the ferry ride
From the ferry ride

The Vasa is an ornate, extravagent warship from the 1600s that was built in Sweden and sailed for about 15 minutes before sinking. In the mid 1900s, she was pulled up from the sea and work on preservation/archaeological analysis began. The museum was huge, with tons of different things to see and fairly well organized. Unlike most museums I visit, I actually watched the film and did the guided tour and I thought it was worthwhile.

The Vasa!
The Vasa! She is 98% original.

We did a few more things in Stockholm that afternoon, and headed to Uppsala for the rest of the weekend. Uppsala is a student town just north of Stockholm. There is this thing called the Nations. They are kind of like student unions, and historically were gathering places for people from each region in Sweden (hence the name Nations). They are cheap bars/restaurants and put on various events. We got guest passes thanks to Svea’s boyfriend and went to a Halloween party. It was really fun, and I was happy to have a little Halloween celebration this year. The French don’t really understand Halloween.

Day 3:

This was probably the best day of all! We got up earlyish (felt early after the night before 😉 ) and went with Svea’s boyfriend’s parents to their summer house on an island on the east coast of Sweden. This was great! The area the house is in felt kind of like Bend in Oregon, but with an ocean. The parents are really nice, welcoming people. The dad is a professor at the university in Uppsala and has his PhD in medicine. I really enjoyed talking to him about his research, and what academia is like in Europe (i.e. funding sources, international research collaborations, etc.).

Sweden has this great thing called fika. It is basically a coffee break, but more social and can last for quite a while. You drink coffee, and eat a little (baked) something. I had fika most days I was in Sweden, but the best was at the summer house. We bought fresh bread and pastries on the way to the house, so they were top notch.

Isn't fika just the best?
Isn’t fika just the best?

We helped the parents out with a few work projects, and explored the area by bike and foot. Very beautiful, and kind of woodsy. Its the most nature-y place I’ve been since I left the States and it was refreshing. I need to be outdoors.

View of the dock from the summer house. Very pretty! The family bought this property before all beaches were public in Sweden, so they own it all.
View of the dock from the summer house. Very pretty! The family bought this property before all beaches were public in Sweden, so they own it all.
The house itself. They are working on building a sort of compound for their family out here.
The house itself. They are working on building a sort of compound for their family out here.

Day 4:

Day 4 consisted of visiting Uppsala’s sights. With a Nations pass, you can go to most/all of the museums for free, so we went to a couple and the old church. I also bought the best red rubber boots! Fleece lined!! There is a large botanical garden in Uppsala, so of course, we went there. We biked around, had fika, and spent time chatting.

It was so good to spend time with Svea. To speak English, to reminisce over college stories, and to just be with someone who I know and knows me. It felt very home-y and comfortable. The thing about moving abroad is its really hard to build good friendships. Not only are you moving somewhere where you know anybody, but there is a huge cultural and language divide between you and 95% of the people who live there. I am lucky in that I get along well with my roommates and have a few assistant friends in Lille. Nevertheless, it is hard to have friends. In terms of cultural exchange, many people are interested in American culture, and I am interested in French culture, but that is more of a novelty sort of interest than a community-building interest. It takes time to build that network in the States, and it is even harder here. In light of that, it was nice to be with a close friend for a few days.

20151023_103306

On a lighter note, the Swedish word for speed is ‘fart’. This word is on many signs, and since Svea and I are 10 year old boys, we found it hilarious. A speed bump is farthinder. Because we all need to hinder our farts 😀

You can't tell me this doesn't make you giggle at least a little.
You can’t tell me this doesn’t make you giggle at least a little.

To Copenhagen!

Oslo

The French LOVE school breaks. The first day of November is All Saints Day, and so the Vacances de la Toussaint happen at the end of October. And yes, for some reason despite the fact that this is a Catholic holiday, it does not break la laïcité (secularism) that the French school system is based on. One can’t really understand the French, just do as they do 😉

Thanks to the break, I completed 2 weeks of work and am enjoying my first 2 week break now. Love it. I’m using my 2 weeks to explore Scandinavia and started with Oslo, Norway.

Oslo is an expensive expensive expensive city. Also, they aren’t in the European Union and like Sweden and Denmark, use a currency that is on a scale approximately 10 times the euro/dollar. In Norway, this is the krone. It is extremely easy to spend way more money than you normally would because it is such a different number it feels like fake money. 100 krone isn’t nearly as meaningful to me as 10 dollars/euros. It is necessary to be alert, I keep on realizing I am about to spend $6 on a coffee!

All in all, Oslo was an awesome city. It isn’t as popular of a tourist destination because it is expensive and out of the way of other European cities, so it feels much more liveable/comfortable to me than a city like Paris. Also, everyone speaks excellent English. Three cheers for a break from the French language!

Day 1:
I arrived midday and just wandered around. I stayed in the Anker Hostel – one of the cheapest options in Oslo. Very close to Karl Johans Gate (main drag/shopping street), the train station and other popular spots. It was obvious how cheap it was though and I had no interest in spending much time there. It was a rainy few days but I liked it – rainy feels like home. I dropped my bag and wandered without aim (except to find the elusive ATM). Oslo has a harbor and is right on the water, has a lot of interesting shops, and about a million 7-11s.

image

At the end of Karl Johans Gate is a park and the Royal Palace. You can watch the changing of the guard every day at 1:30 and a kind of fun free thing to do in a spendy city.

image
The view of the palace from Karl Johans Gate.

I am addicted to soup, and found a nice cheap soup restaurant, What’soup. In a food court underneath the Steen & Strom department store, there were many good food options. The soup was still 100 NOK but that’s cheap for Oslo! And they have free Wifi!! Really, what more could a girl want?

Day 2:
I always try to find botanical gardens when I travel, they are free, pretty, and I really like them. So first thing was a trip to the Botanical Garden. Very pretty, although I would imagine it’s much better in the spring and summer. You can tell Fall is here.

image
View from my walk to the gardens. I have a habit of leaving with a very very general idea of where I am going and spending a long time searching. But then I find places like this and it is worth it!

It took me a long time to find the garden, so by the time is was done there, I was hungry! I found a good bakery and had a norwegian cinnamon bun and coffee and was fueled up for the rest of the day. Oslo has a lot of cool museums and viewpoints but they are pretty spread out, so I bought a 24 hour bus pass for 90 NOK and headed to the Munch Museum. The museum was fine, although I’m not sure I would go back because it was a little pricy for me. Art museums have the best gifts/souvenirs.The art postcards are the best cheap, packable thing to buy so I got some good ones.

I then wandered around the roof of the Oslo Opera House, which was fun. It’s a slanted roof you can walk on and a fun, free thing to do for a couple minutes.

image
Flat Jane in her rain jacket on top of the opera house. (hiiiiii mom!!!)

I then took the bus out to the Fram Museum. This museum was awesome!! And only 40 NOK. It has 2 ships used for artic explorations around 1900 (the Fram and the Gjøa). I’m not a huge museum person, but any adventuring, science person would be interested in this museum. I learned all sorts of things about how the north pole was explored and the ways they studied the unique atmospheric and magnetic properties near the north pole. The museum was well presented and the absolute coolest part was getting to go on the Fram and walk on and below deck. I can’t believe people spent years based out of these small spaces.

image
Their outfits. The explorers learned a lot about living in the arctic from the Inuit people, including the best way to make clothing.
image
One of the biggest cabins on Fram.
image
From on the Fram’s deck.

The last thing I did was go to the Vigeland Sculpture Park on my way back from the Fram. This park has hundreds of sculptures and was a good way to end my day of wandering. Another free park to explore.

image

image

I went back to the food court for a cheapish burrito – the best burrito I’ve had in Europe! (not saying much) and went back to my hostel to plan for Sweden.

Oslo had many things I didn’t do that I would’ve liked to. There is the Holmenkollen ski jump and Kragstotten viewpoint for great views of the city, the Norwegian Folk Museum (an open air museum with traditional Norwegian houses), the Kon-Tiki museum, and the nearby forests. To make that affordable, you can buy an Oslo Pass for admission to all the museums but in the winter they have limited hours and it wasn’t feasible to shove them all into my day. I would love to come back to Norway in the summer for hiking and kayaking or in the winter for snowshoeing and skiing. A beautiful country. And if you head north, you can see the northern lights and fjords!!

To Stockholm we go ✈✈