Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bavaria Part 1: Neuschwanstein

Well it's currently December, and with a week of nothing to do since I finished finals before finals week actually began (magic - I know), I happened to remember that two trips from my long-lost life in Europe remain to be blogged. Actually, I should probably thank my ever-relentless grandmother for reminding me on a regular basis that she would like to read this (or at least acts like she enjoys reading these since she supports me :). So, without further ado, here's the trip that was Bavaria from last August.

Having lived in Berlin for 9 months, it would be innapropriate to say the least with my traveling lifestyle not to visit the other most-prominent city in Germany. This trip was fulfilled toward the end of August. I can't exactly say that I got much sleep before going to Munich - not that I ever did in Europe - but on this account due to the fact that my friends and I had roadtripped overnight back from our day excursion to Prague. Lukily, we got back in time for me to make it to the airport for my 7am flight south. A group of 5 of us made the weekend trip: Aria, Kendall, Amasia, Jonah, and myself. Unfortunately, after arriving in Munich at 8am that morning, everyone felt like going back to sleep instead of hopping on a 2.5 hour train ride. I say unfortunately not for myself and my lack of sleep - by this time I had more than learned how to run on fumes. Rather, unfortunately applies to the rest of the group as I left them behind for a solo day-trip south to the town of Füssen, home to the Disney-emulated Neuschwanstein castle.

After sleeping most of the way and almost missing my regional transfer mid-ride, I woke up to the sunshine flooding over the northern Alps of the Germany-Austria border. Füssen, a beautiful town that I would later in the day explore, was 5 kilometers away from the infamous Neuschwanstein castle, leaving the option of a bus transfer or a hike through the Alps. Easy choice. Who wants to ride in bus when you can wind your way around tree-lined glass lakes that reflect off their surface the most famous castle in German history? After a leisurely hike through destination wonderland, I arrived at around 3pm at the base of the Neuschwanstein-capped mountain. Originally, I was planning to wait in the ticket line in order to tour the inner grounds of the castle, but after learning that the line was an hour wait and then another 4 hour wait until the next tour would be available, I graciously declined. Lukily, it worked out not to be a problem as tourists can still tour the entire exterior of the castle in addition to the inner courtyard without a ticket. After leaving the ticket line and then hiking 45 minutes to the top of the mountain, I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful views I have seen in Europe. Looking out over the surrounding landscape, perfectly green grass with small little towns surrouded a selection of sky blue lakes to my right, and back to my left spanned the mountains I had just hiked through in addition to the lesser known Hohenschwangau castle. If my memory serves me correctly, I'm pretty sure at this moment I didn't even care to go through the castle and was perfectly content just to sit atop the mountain while I soaked up the view. Eventually, after an unspecified amount of time, I made it to my feet despite the tremendous view and began the trek around the castle grounds.
The castle grounds mostly consisted of the castle's courtyard, being that there weren't many surrounding walkable areas due to the castle being atop a mountain. After walking through the massive castle gate and into the courtyard, I wandered about the thousands of tourists with my neck craned in order to see the skyward-bound structure. To be entirely truthful, the castle is more impressive to see from a distance in the context of its surrounding landscape, but still impressive up close nonetheless. After exploring the castle for half and hour or so, I continued on my journey to the Marienbrücke, a bridge spanning two narrowly seperated mountains that looks back on the castle and the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately, as is almost every man-made European icon that can be classified as famous and old, the opposite side of the castle was covered in scaffolding. However, even though I couldn't see much of the castle itselft, it was still a remarkably rewarding sight. After taking a few pictures here and there on the bridge, I descended to the bottom of the mountain and hiked a different mountain route on my way back to Füssen.
Once back in Füssen, I worked my way through the southern German architecture that I had previously experienced on my Bavarian trip to Bamberg. Colorful wooden-trimmed buildings often adorned with paintings lined the cobble stone streets that housed artisans displaying an array of unique crafts. My favorite shop owner, a wood craftsman, owned a shop hidden toward the back of the small town and confirmed what many had previously told me about southern Germans: they are extremely nice. In contrast to Berlin, where people are nice but mostly introverted, southern Germans are much more extroverted and welcome tourists and locals alike with an overflow of warmth and cheerfulness. I spent literally half an hour talking to the shop owner, who had a son getting ready to leave to study abroad in Chicago. He himself spends all his vacation time in New York, Florida, and the Carolinas, and could not possibly understand why so many European tourists flock to the beaches of Spain or Greece for holidays instead of choosing the US. Not a common opinion among most Europeans I must admit, but pretty cool nonetheless. After finishing our debate regarding the best NBA players, food culture, and other odds and ends, I left the small German town and reluctantly made my way back to the train station. Somewhere along the 2.5 hour journey back to Munich, I'm pretty sure I decided that I liked small southern-German towns quite a bit.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Going over to a friend's house doesn't usually entail leaving 30 minutes later. That would be rude, unkind, disrespectful. Then again, a typical conversation with someone you just met for the first time doesn't usually follow the pattern of: "Hey, I'm Rafa - want to go to Prague tomorrow?" Which therefore leads you to laugh at the idea, absurdity, and bluntness of the posed question, respond by stating your name and asking if they're actually serious, and when you realize they are, leaving to go home 30 minutes later to pack a bag and meet at the car rental place at the bright and early hour of 3:30 in the morning. That being said, at 8am Andres, Rafa and myself pulled into the parking garage of beautiful Prague on a Thursday morning in August for a nicely spent 24 hour trip.

After making the 4 hour drive in the middle of the night, which isn't such a burden when you get to drive the second half of the way while watching the sun come over the mountains as the other people in the car sleep (actually quite peaceful and relaxing), we arrived in the Czech Republic capital the next morning. What is a burden is pulling into the parking garage and 8am, coming to the realization of why the hell did we leave so early - or late - and wondering how you're going to make it through the day on 30 minutes of sleep. Nothing an hour power-nap can't fix. So by 9am we were out on the streets and began walking through the cobblestone walkways, diverse architecture, and tourist-haven Prague. We started off the day in Old Town Square, admiring the cafe-lined streets, arrangement of architectual styles, horse-drawn carriages, and the famous Astronomical Clock. One of the most interesting things about Prague (which starkly reminded me of Porto) is the variation of building design, from the material used for construction to style to age period and so on. It's as if someone who couldn't make up their mind which style was better or more beautiful took an all-encompassing assortment and slapped them together in one city for a big architectual sandwich. And surprising, it's works. Somehow with all the different modern buildings that sit before towering midieval structures there's a sense of fluidity. I'm not sure how it works, but it does. Maybe it's also kind of frustrating too, but I think it achieves more than it takes away. After spending a while walking around Old Town Square, we stopped for an early brunch at an Italian restaurant for some much needed food. Pretty good - nothing special - but definitely feeds the soul when you're working on almost no sleep.

After lunch we made our way to a Dali exhibition, which isn't something I normally do on weekend trips in Europe. Normally I try to stray away from the museums and instead embrace a more outdoors sightseeing approach. But all in all it wasn't so bad to spend an hour wandering through paintings - maybe I'm more "cultured" now because of it. After the exhibit, we walked throughout Prague to a few midieval churches, structures, and eventually to the famous Charles Bridge. The bridge is lined with numerous sculptures that connect the two sides of the city. My favorite part of the bridge was the plethora of street artists, whether it be painters, jewelers, musicians, or some other sort of craft. Street preformers unfortunately were not to be found, but other than that the bridge was pretty satisfying. On the other side of the bridge, we hiked our way up to the top of the Prague Castle, which itself wasn't so spectacular, but did offer a nice panoramic view of the city. The nice thing about Prague is it's so small that it makes it incredibly easy to walk the entire city (or at the least the part of the city worth seeing). From the view at the top, you could see everything - with the mountains on one side, the river, the churches, ect. Something about panoramic views just makes it nice to see where you've been. Comically, after our treck to the top of the castle, I think we repeated the already said journey through the city a couple more times and eventually stopped in an underground tavern for dinner. After a tasty plate of something that I can't remember at the moment, we walked back across the river to the John Lennon wall which is covered in Beatles oriented graffiti. And pretty much, that concluded our 24 hour excursion to Prague.

Prague, if you haven't already heard, has been pronounced as "the most beautiful city in Europe", "Europe's gem", "the one place in Europe you HAVE to see", and so on. For me, I would disagree with most these statements. Prague definitely is beautiful and is absolutely worth seeing, but most beautiful city in Europe?... I'm not so sure. For some reason throughout the day I got this creepy feeling stemming from all of the dark midieval architecture that thousands of people had been tortured at some point throughout this city's history. Probably right out on the streets. Probably for the amusement of the masses. But putting my weird inhibitions aside, Prague is beautiful and is a very cool city - one you should go visit should you ever get the chance. Just wouldn't personally make my top 5 list. But then again, I'm sure the masses that have visited Prague would harshly disagree and leave me to a midieval torture device for thoughts of even making such a comment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Goodbye West, Hello East: Meine Neue Wohnung

Hopefully this statement doesn't disappoint, but the travel blogs are over. Finished. Fertig. Kaputt. I've settled down in Berlin for the summer - the same city I have lived in for the last 6 months but haven't necessarily spent all of my time in due to spur of the moment trips in an effort to see Europe. But now that that's out of my system - not that it needs to be - I'm staying in the city I love for the remaining 3 months of my stay, and in turn decided long ago to move to the East, a decision that finally came to fruition a few weeks ago. And now that I have, here's a quick update on my new living situation.

While Charlottenburg provided an enjoyable experience for the spring, in stark contrast to the bland and nothing-to-do nature of Friedenau in the winter, East Berlin easily tops both areas on the "better places to live" chart. Prenzlauer Berg, more specifically, probably sits somewhere on that chart in between "really damn cool to live in" and "just plain funky." Maybe the word funky went out of style quite some time ago, but I'm bringing it back. Due to the hip art crowd, European cafes lining each and every street, unescapable music scene, unending number of young people, and plethora of bars, funky probably works pretty well. It's really not just Prenzlauer Berg, although I would like to claim it exclusively for my own ego, but it's a whole combination of the already mentioned plus Friedrichshain and Mitte - hence: The East. Do not be alarmed, 20 years ago did not magically disappear and simply slide out of the history books. The wall did fall. But as significant to world history as the fall of the wall was, what it was not able to accomplish was to dissolve the cultural difference between the East and West. And thank God for that. The East, filled with all of the afformentioned entities, has a cultural presence, a vibe, a feeling that cannot be escaped. You cannot walk down a street in the East without being bombarded with colorful graffiti lining the walls, street musicians jamming out with a saxaphone or trumpet, people lining the sidewalks enjoying an espresso or fresh baked roll, or some form of weekend festival. The East has a personality and character that can only be imitated in the West, rather a character that is avoided in the West due to pretentiousness and pride. It's not that the West is a bad place at all, or that the people are cold, boring, or uninteresting. It's just that unlike the West, the East embraces a distinct personality - it has a personality - that emits from every corner, every hidden away bar, and every artist that practices his or her craft. If you haven't yet caught my drift, the East is a cool place.

The other distinct difference in my current living situation, beside direct location, is, well, my living situation. Due to the strained and confined rules of my university's program, we were required to live for the school period with a host family. Both experiences were rewarding and I enjoyed both, but as a college student, living with a single lady in her mid-50's is not exactly what one would call ideal. Therefore, I moved into a student apartment comprised of myself plus 3 other students. It's undoubtedly a much more desired situation, much more comfortable, and I actually feel like I live in my own space versus living in someone elses home. The makeup of the group is also quiet diverse: a 30-year old Italian girl, a 24-year old Portuguese guy, and a 22-year old French girl. It's a great, laidback, free thinking and fun group that suits my own personal preferences way better that the elderly and relatively conservative outlooks of my previous living situations. (No offense intended with the "elderly" comment to my loving grandparents back home - you're young at heart). With the four of us in the apartment, combined with the nicely balanced male to female ratio and our multinational dynamic, it makes for great conversations, interesting perspectives, and an exciting group to live with for this summer. It's been a great 3 weeks living here so far and I have little doubt in my mind that anything will change for the remainder of the summer. And, if anything does, I'm still living in the East.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


It's been a crazy few weeks, so I'm behind on blogs, but here's a quick 2 cents about Stockholm. A little over 2 weeks ago, after spending 3 days in Dusseldorf and Essen for an internship seminar, 5 of us took off for Stockholm for a guys weekend in the Nordic land. The crew: Jake (Flex), Kendall (Speed), Andreas (Slick), Remi (Boss), and myself (Doc). After sleeping Friday night in the airport, we caught a 6am flight and headed out to Stockholm.

Upon arriving, we walked the streets a searched for a hostel, which we finally found. First of all, Stockholm is incredibly expensive, one of the most expensive cities in the world, so we paid 16 euros a night per person for literally a 6x7 ft. room. It was incredibly claustrophobic, stuffy, and no windows, but it was way cheaper than anything else we could find. After dropping off our bags, we walked to Old Town Stockholm and wandered through the cobblestone streets, around the Royal Palace, and chased the blue suited men around for the changing of the guard. We watched the changing of the guard for about 20 minutes and ended up at the front of the Royal Palace. It was quite comical though when Remi, upon asking the guard what would happen if he jumped the gate into the Palace lawn, was told that the real guards would be called to arrest him if he did not leave after being asked politely. Apparently, security is not really an issue in Sweden and the guards "guarding" the Palace are only novices and the real guards sit around somewhere else. After following the changing of the guard, we found a great underground tavern to eat lunch and then left to explore the city more. We went through some very cool independent abstract art galleries, browsed shops, and just hung out in the city. Stockholm is nice for the fact that the entire city is comprised of small inlets of water that surround small islands. Having a city surrounded by water easily makes a city more beautiful, so we walked up and down a lot of the streets along the waterways throughout the day. Around dinner time we headed back to the hostel for a quick power nap before going out to the clubs. The great thing about Stockholm nightlife, or Stockholm girls rather, is that they dance with you. Makes it a great thing when you roll to the club with 5 guys all wanting to dance with the female species - definitely would not work out in Berlin. We ended up having a great night at the clubs that was much better than the club scene in Berlin. One last note - we left the club at 3:30 in the morning and the sky was entirely bright. Due to Stockholm being so far north, it never gets completely dark and you can always see some of the sunshine on the horizon.

Probably the best thing about Saturday night in Stockholm was that we met 2 Swedish girls that agreed to show us around the city the next day. We met up with them at a park in the city mid-day and then walked to a carnival like area where we grabbed lunch at a hamburger spot. Afterwards, we decided to rent peddle boats and go out for a couple hours on the waterways of Stockholm. It was awesome to hang out on the water for the day as the weather was nice and the city is great to see by water. Basically, that was the entire day Sunday. Met up with the girls, hung out in a couple parks, went out on the water, and then called it a day. That night, we had nothing to do so we went to a theater and saw Angels and Demons, a relatively boring but relaxing thing to do in a foreign city. The night, we went to the lounge of our hostel and played cards for hours until catching a 3:45am bus in the morning to the airport for our Monday morning flight back to Berlin. While both our outgoing and incoming flights were at ridiculous times during the day, when you get a flight for 20 euros round trip you're definitely not complaining. Overall, Stockholm was a cool city, a pretty fun weekend, and established the crew known as LXG: Slick, Speed, Boss, Flex, and Doc.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


We had a few phrases for the week.  One: "We did this trip right."  Two: "I can't believe this is my life right now."  And three, my personal favorite: "We're living in paradise right now, but we actually are in Paradise."  If you can get the double meaning of the third phrase, that one sums up the trip best.  After a week in paradise staying at Paradise Beach, I would say with almost certain confidence that the 3 days spent in Mykonos were some of the best of my life.

Nash, Kendall, Aria, Remi, and myself flew out of Berlin midday Thursday into Athens.  Immediately upon arrival, Nash and I had only a short time between landing and our ferry departure so we quickly hopped in a cab and headed to the port.  Kendall, Aria, and Remi wanted an extra day to see Athens, so they came to the island a day later on Friday night.  For Nash and I, our ferry set sail at 6:30 as we boarded for a 4 1/2 hour ride to the island of Mykonos.  We had deck seating for the ferry so we sat on the top floor of the ship and played cards, ate dinner, and laid around as we made the journey across the Aegean Sea.  The best part of the boat journey, besides the fact that it got us to the island, was that we had the most incredible sunset I have ever seen.  There were clear skies and for probably 40 minutes you could watch the sun slowly dip below the sea level and beyond the other islands as the sky lit up with all sorts of pinks, yellows, oranges, reds, and blues.  I guess I haven't really seen that many sunsets in my life, but I'll be giving a big round of applause to the sunset that one day tops this one.  After a last hour in literally total darkness surrounding the ship, we arrived at Mykonos at 11pm and caught a bus to our beach cabin in Paradise Beach.  Immediately upon arriving, we threw our things in our room, caught a quick shower, and took the 30 second walk to the beach bar.  The best thing about our beach cabin, other than the fact that it was ridiculously cheap, was that we stayed literally 50 meters from the beach.  So upon reaching the beach bar, we immediately started meeting people in what was probably my favorite aspect of the trip: everyone spoke english.  It was not that everyone spoke english when you asked them, but they were already speaking english.  Paradise Beach is a huge party spot full of Canadian, American, English, and Australian tourists, so it was awesome to be able to talk to anyone.  After meeting a few people, we headed to the club around 1 and danced the entire night.  The club had one of the coolest setups I have yet to see: a huge turquoise pool with the dance floor surrounding it, a view right out onto the beach, and some of the most fun bartenders yet.  After a long night of dancing and meeting new people, we got back to our cabin around 5 and crashed only to wake up at 9 the next morning.

While we could have slept in Friday morning, who wants to sleep in when you have a gorgeous beach a few steps away.  So we got up early, had a quick breakfast, and by 10 were laying in beach loungers looking out onto the ocean while sipping on fresh squeezed pineapple juice.  We literally laid around on the beach the entire day, arriving there at 10 in the morning and not leaving the beach once until 8pm.  The beach had tons of great aspects.  First of all, I have never seen ocean water that is actually clear.  On the entire island and at Paradise, the water was completely clear and you could swim as far out as possible and still see to the bottom.  The only negative aspect of paradise beach is that it is a small pebble beach, where as all the other beaches we saw on the island the next day were sand.  This didn't really matter though as we were either laying in chairs, swimming around in the water, or hanging out at the beach bar.  Paradise Beach, especially for college students, is the perfect location.  It's one of the top 5 party beaches in the world, has incredibly affordable housing, and more entertainment than imaginable.  However, while on the beach Friday morning, we were wondering if we just came the wrong time of year or if the beach wasn't actually as cool as we had originally thought because when we looked around at 1pm there was almost no one on the beach.  But at about 2, that completely changed.  The chilled-out beach grooves that the bars were playing turned into club beats, and within about 30 minutes every chair on the beach was taken.  We realized had we not set an alarm this would have been us too after being exhausted from the club the night before.  At 4:30 every day, the Tropicana Beach Bar throws a party which officially starts off the party day at Paradise and doesn't end until the late hours of the morning.  Spending an entire 10 hours on the beach was pretty awesome, especially when you have beautiful views of the ocean, are surrounded by thousands of people your same age, and are in Greece for the first time in your life.  When we finally left the beach at 8 that night, we were wondering if you could really top the first day we had just had.  Luckily for us, that wouldn't turn out to be a problem.  So we grabbed a quick 30 minute power nap, then met up with Aria, Remi, and Kendall as they arrived at 11:30 to the resort.  Once we had the whole crew together, we went back to the beach bar to start off the night where we met some Canadian girls who then went with us into the town of Mykonos.  We first went to small little Australian bar called Down Under which we had heard about through a bartender we met at Paradise.  Plus with the free drink coupons she gave us, there was no way we could not go.  After hanging out for a couple hours, we walked down the street to Scandinavian Bar which is recommended by literally everyone in the town.  So as a repeat of the night before, we danced all night until catching a ride back in to Paradise in the morning where we hung out on the beach for an hour or so and watched the sunrise.  Quite a nice way to end a night of partying, as the sunrise is almost as spectacular as the sunset.  The only downside - going to bed at 7 am and then waking up the next day at 9 does not do so well for your sleep.  But hey, you only live once.

Why did we again decide to get up at an absurd hour the next morning?  Actually for quite a good reason.  The one thing Nash and I decided we had to on Mykonos before we came was rent ATV's.  Paradise Beach, just like our beach cabin, had great prices for all day 4-wheeler rentals.  We strolled over to the rental spot at 9 Saturday morning and rented the ATV's for only 17 euros for a whole 24 hours!  Our plan for the day was to beach hop - just pick out a beach on the map and drive there, spend an hour or so at each, and then go to the next.  Mykonos has just under 20 beaches, and we made it to 7 different ones on Saturday.  My favorite beach of the day was Elia, located on the southeast corner of the island.  It had extremely fine white sand, beautiful water, and cliffs surrounding the small cove that it was set in.  The close runner-up for favorite beach of the day was Super Paradise, set in an extremely deep cove, so it felt very secluded and also made the water warmer than other beaches on the island.  Basically the theme of the day was to cruise the island on the 4-wheelers while enjoying spectacular views and the feeling of freedom that comes with driving ATV's, lay around on the beach while juggling the mini soccer ball that I brought, and in general just enjoying life.  We saw so many beautiful beaches on Saturday, and the experience of getting place to place on an ATV is pretty irreplaceable.  The island is relatively small, so we were able to get from one side to the other in about 25 minutes, that is if we didn't make a wrong turn somewhere due to the complete lack of road signs, road names, or a remotely decent map.  It didn't matter though as every time we got lost we ran into something else, plus it just meant more time cruising around which was great in itself.  We ended the 4-wheeler day by going into the town of Mykonos where we walked the streets, grabbed dinner, and enjoyed the natural scenery.  The town is very typical of Greek architecture: white-washed buildings, blue, green, and turquoise stair railings and window shutters, and grayish stone streets.  Mykonos also has the most beautiful pink flower trees that hang over the narrow walkways throughout the city.  The city itself is much like a maze as all the streets wind this way and that and it's incredibly easy to get lost.  Overall, the shopping in Mykonos wasn't anything special as it was all high-class stores or little all-the-same souvenir shops.  But the town itself was beautiful and completely worth seeing during the day since we had already seen it the night before.  At about 8pm, Nash and I arrived back to Paradise where we took a quick shower and went back to the beach bar to start the night.  This night we met a couple guys from New York, a few English guys, and a huge group of Australian girls.  We all decided to go back into the town and repeat the night before.  So we again started off at Down Under with free drinks thanks again to our bartender friend and then to Scandinavian Bar for more dancing.  After we all decide we were a bit tired of the club, we went back to Paradise in the middle of the night and continued with a beach party until sunrise.  It probably sounds like exactly the same night as Friday, but with meeting new people and having a different group from the night before, it was entirely different.  But another great night, another 2 hours of sleep, and another 9am wake up the next morning.

On Sunday, Nash and I had to get up at 9 in order to return the 4-wheelers by 9:30 so not to get charged for another full day if we were late returning them.  After doing so, we grabbed another quick breakfast and went to the beach (actually breakfast is at the beach so we were already there) to lay around on loungers.  I was actually shocked at how awake I felt, so we played cards for a while, listened to some beach grooves, and just hung out as the beach was again completely dead until about 2.  Aria, Kendall, and Remi met us on the beach at about 1 and we hung out for the entire day again at Paradise, this time under grass umbrella huts since most of us were slightly burnt from the previous days.  After another day of laying around and just hanging out with good company and the people we had met, we left Paradise at 6:30 to catch our 7:00 ferry back to Athens.  It was a shame to have to say goodbye to Paradise, but the memory and legend that Paradise is will live on in my memory forever.

Nash stayed behind in Mykonos for another day before he had to catch a flight back to the states on Wednesday, but Remi, Kendall, and I explored Athens in a quick half-day on Monday before our flight back to Berlin.  We walked from our hostel to the Acropolis and the Parthenon and saw those sights before browsing for a couple hours through the tourist shops and streets of Athens.  Athens as a whole is a relatively dirty city and I would highly recommend for anyone who goes to Athens to not spend more than 1 or maybe 1 1/2 days there.  The main sites to see are definitely worth seeing, but spending too much time there is definitely a mistake.  Go to an island instead and soak up the Greek beaches and beauty, which in my case was absolutely the right choice and I'm very glad I limited my time in Athens and maximized my time in Mykonos.  Overall, Mykonos was an incredible trip and there is no possible way I will ever forget it in my entire life.  I can be 85 years old one day and completely senile and delirious, but I guarantee I'll still be remembering and telling stories about Mykonos.  It was a priceless trip, and like I said before, I was living in Paradise, but I was actually in paradise.  Cheers to you Paradise Beach: Mykonos.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Zurück nach Berlin

Between the crazy weekends traveling from city to city, I actually have spent at least some time here in Berlin.  And if you haven't heard my impressions of this city, this culture, and this experience since winter quarter, wow have they changed.  And definitely for the better.  Not that I ever had a bad impression of Berlin or the people here, but with the arrival of spring and warm weather, everything looks different.  So rather than telling a continuous story of my past few months here in my home city, I'll just hit a few key points here and there.

Weather: April was off the charts.  Literally, and I'm not exaggerating, every single day was 70F and completely sunny.  After enduring a ridiculously cold winter with seeing absolutely no sun, the month of April was much needed.  Not to mention all the things I got to do because of the weather...

Parks and Biking: While I now live in Charlottenburg as compared to Friedenau last quarter, you might as well say that I actually live in the Tiergarten or Schlosspark Charlottenburg.  If you look on a map, the Tiergarten is a massive park in the center of the city which is great for picnics, laying out, sleeping, and almost any and all outdoor activities.  There's also a really nice Biergarten that sits on a pond on the southwest corner of the park.  Schlosspark is on the back side of the Schloss Charlottenburg and wraps around a big lake.  Both parks are great to hang out in and I do pretty much all of my work in the parks.  The other weather-inspired part of my life is that due to my excessive biking habits back on Stanford's US campus, I terribly missed riding my bike so I bought one here.  Berlin is incredibly easy to bike as it's extremely flat, so I basically ride my bike everywhere throughout the city.  To the parks, to get groceries, to school, to shops, and the list goes on.  It's great to have a bike because you see so much more of the city than when you ride the U-bahn (it's underground so you miss a lot).  I really feel like I know the city so much better just because of having a bike.

Wohnung: Apartment in English.  I moved to Charlottenburg at the end of March, which is on the west end of Berlin.  I like my new spot much more than my old place in Friedenau.  The entrance to my apartment is in between two restaurant entrances, and my entire street is filled with shops, bars, bakeries, and more restaurants.  It's great to be able to walk 3 blocks up the street and have 3 grocery stores to choose from, a shopping mall, and plenty of other shops.  Plus I'm located a block away from the U-bahn and center S-bahn line, so I can get to the bars and clubs in the east in just 20 minutes and to school in 25.  Basically, it's a great location and I love living there.  Also, my host mom works as a professor at a university in Paderborn, about a 3 hour train ride from Berlin, which means she is only home every-other weekend so I basically have my own apartment.

People:  I have met so many more German's for a couple of reasons.  One, my German is much better.  Even though everyone here in Germany speaks great English, it makes it much more comfortable to talk to people when you can speak their own language fairly well.  As a tourist, you don't mind asking people if they speak English, but since I live here, it's much nicer to just talk in German.  Two, I swear German's are now much more talkative and friendly now that the weather is nice.  Not that they were unfriendly before, but in the winter no one would speak or smile on the U-bahn, but now it's loud and full of energy.  Then again, I've noticed this change in myself being much more outgoing and lively with sun and warmth every day, so I guess it's just a weather thing.  And just like myself, people here in Berlin flood the parks.  I thought that people used the parks when I was in Madrid, but nothing like here.  There are thousands upon thousands of people in the parks every weekend and it's awesome to see so many people outdoors just enjoying life.

Food: I've diversified.  Well, at least from my pizza, pasta, and chicken breast routine.  I've started cooking a ridiculous amount of vegetables, still eat a ton of fruit, and have strayed away from eating out.  Even though eating out is extremely inexpensive here, you still save a bunch of money by cooking for yourself - plus it's been kind of fun to try and make different dishes.

Sports: I've been to 2 Hertha Berlin games at the Olympiastadion.  It's a great atmosphere, and even though there is an olympic track surrounding the field, you don't really feel distanced from the game.  However, Hertha in my opinion is not that good even though they are having an anomaly of a year and are only 1 point back from first place with 3 games left in the season.  It's been fun though to go to a couple games since live is always so much better than watching through the tv.  I've also been to a basketball, ice hockey, and handball game all at the O2 area in east berlin.  Handball is a funny sport and I would not recommend going and watching a game.  The final score of the game I saw was 28-22, which means the excitement of scoring a goal almost completely loses it's effect.  Plus there are an absurd amount of injuries for a relatively low contact sport.  Anyway, I can't take the sport seriously so I won't be going to any more games.  The basketball game was just ok - clearly not the level to that in the states and no one dunks, literally no one.  Another funny thing - when they show highlights of NBA games on tv stations here, they don't even show dunks in the highlight reel!  It's weird that they're completely against dunking.  Ice hockey was very cool to watch and if the season wasn't already over, I would definitely go to another game.  Way more fun that watching it on tv.  Speaking of tv, it's been nice to have more people here this quarter from the Stanford program who love soccer.  It's pretty standard that every Tuesday and Wednesday night we meet at a bar and watch the champions  league games.  That's been a lot of fun, for both watching the games and exploring different bars throughout the city.

Tourism: While traveling throughout Europe in the Winter, mostly to warm destinations, you would always see tourists roaming the streets, but never here in Berlin.  How that has changed.  Especially with the current economic crisis, Berlin's "poor but sexy" motto is raking in the tourists and tourism is actually higher this year than last year.  Now that it's warm, there are tons of tourists taking bike tours of the city, walking the streets, and I hear so much more English when I'm out in the city.  I like having a bunch of tourists here - it mirrors the shift in the city itself between winter and spring - much more lively and exciting.

Kino's: Movies here in Germany are a different experience than in the states.  First of all, the kinos are way more comfortable here with wide seats and armrests for each person.  However, other than that, the US theaters are better.  German movies start with 15 minutes of food previews, then the lights come back on and guys with trays full of food walk up and down the isles trying to sell you stuff.  Then the lights go back off, another 15 minutes of regular previews, and then the film starts 30 minutes after the time on your ticket.  Also, if the movie you are seeing is longer than 2hr 15min, then there will be a 20 minute intermission in the middle.  And by in the middle, I mean exactly in the middle.  The last film I saw cut out right in the middle of an action scene that had everyone's heart racing and adrenaline pumping, and then after subduing the audience for 20 minutes, picked back up.  It sucks for the films because it really ruins part of the viewing experience.  One last detail with kinos - here you pay a Euro more for seats that are not in the first 10 rows, and you have assigned seats.  So, no reason to get there early.  In fact, get there late so you can skip all the food previews.

That's about it that I can think of for now to give an update on.  I'm sure there is plenty more that I have forgotten, but these are just a few details.  Overall, I love Berlin way more this spring than the winter and feel now like I truly know the city.  You know it's a great city when you leave to travel to another country for the weekend and don't care at all when it's Sunday afternoon and you're forced to return due to your flight.  Even though you had a great time wherever you were, you can't wait to get back to Berlin.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bamberg Bierdiplom

After living here in Berlin for a grand total of 4 months, it's a shame that I had not yet made it to anywhere within Germany besides here in Berlin! However, now I can officially say I have been to 2 German cities now - or maybe 3 if you want to count Potsdam, which is 100% worth seeing but just a 30 minute S-bahn ride away so it feels a bit like it belongs within "Berlin." This spring, a bunch of us here in the Stanford program met a German student named Udo, who goes to the university in Bamberg but is from Berlin and lives at Wannsee about every other weekend. We've been to his lake house many times for weekend barbeques, hanging out on the docks, and swimming in the lake, but never to visit him in Bamberg. So, after a much overdo trip within the country, we rented cars and roadtripped to Bavaria to stay at Udo's apartment for the weekend and ultimately search for the ever-so-coveted Bierdiplom. While I originally thought I was just going to some random German town of only 70,000 people for a weekend of drinking beer and leaving with funny memories, the trip actually turned out to be much more due to the beautiful city in which the Bierdiplom could be obtained.

Bamberg, located in northern Bavaria, is about a 4 hour drive from Berlin and sits in a valley of some very large rolling hills or small mountains depending how you want to look at it. The best part about Bamberg for me was that it was not destroyed during WWII, so it was the first time that I was able to see traditional German architecture. Berlin, which was completely bombed out during the second war, has hardly any traditional German buildings remaining and the city was completely reconstructed after the war. So, when we as American think of the stereotypical and traditional image of Germany from an outsider's perspective, Bamberg is pretty much exactly the image that comes to one's mind. The entire city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site (like the castles of Sintra in Portugal), so it's pretty significant in the realm of German culture and history. It's also beautiful due to the river that runs through the city center along many of the old German buildings. So after arriving very late at 1am to Bamberg - we went on an all-day bike tour of Potsdam Friday - we crashed for the most uncomfortable night of sleeping I have ever had in my life. While it was awesome to have a place to stay and I'm incredibly grateful to Udo for letting us stay at his place, sleeping on a wooden floor with only a blanket for warmth and a backpack as a pillow definitely does not qualify as sleep! But hey, as a cheap college student, I was happy and grateful nonetheless.

We woke up the next morning, or stayed up the whole night, and cooked an enormous brunch of pasta with sauce and cheese to give us a steady start to the day. It was rather important to eat a big meal since the rest of the day entailed drinking. Bamberg, besides it's architectual beauty and historical status, is also home to the largest density of breweries in the world. There are 9 traditional breweries, plus one modern one, all of which are extremely old and as the world knows, beer is a huge part of German culture so therefore the breweries are fairly significant. The idea of the Bierdiplom is to spend a day going to each of the 9 traditional breweries and trying the house beer from each. In the past, it was an organized tour, not by a tour company but the Bierdiplom was actually a ligitimate beer tasting event, in which each brewery acknowledge that it existed and gave visitors stamps upon drinking their house beer. At the end of the day, one would have 9 stamps for having 9 historic beers and therefore would have complete the Bierdiplom. However, since it was organized, that meant there was a specified order in which to visit the breweries; as one can imagine, the breweries at the end of the list were likely not so happy to always be flooded with locals and tourists alike all completely drunk after visiting 7 or 8 other breweries first. So, the Bierdiplom lost its official status and the breweries no longer acknowledge the event. However, some breweries out of tradition and good taste still give visitors stamps if they have a Bierdiplom paper (which can be created on one's own just as our's were). So that's a short history of the idea behind the Bierdiplom - try 9 beers, visit 9 historic breweries, see the city while walking from brewery to brewery, and ultimately just have a good time with the friends you are with. So after eating an emormous brunch to prepare us for the day, we headed out to arrive at the first brewery at 1pm.

Our first brewery on the list was Brauerei Spezial. We arrived on time at 1 and ordered our first beer. I think a few of us were a bit nervous about having 9 half liters of beer throughout the day, but it actually turned out to be fine with the walking between breweries and a quick stop for pizza between the 5th and 6th. The first brewery brewed a smoked beer - one of two smoked beers we had throughout the day in Bamberg, and is a beer that can only be found in Bamberg. The first one was not really noticable as it was extremely mild, although dark, and did not have a smoked smell to it. Since it would be a bit exhaustive to talk about every brewery and there are a lot of similarities while each being unique, I'll just give a general overview of the day to give feel for the breweries.  So to start, here is a list of the 9 we visited in order and the year they were founded:

1) Brauerei Spezial (1536)
2) Brauerei Keesman (1867)
3) Brauerei Mahr (1670)
4) Brauerei Maisel (1798)
5) Brauerei Fässla (1649)
6) Brauerei Heller-Trum (Schlenkeria) (1678)
7) Braeurei Klosterbräu (1533)
8) Brauerei Kaiserdom (1718)
9) Brauerei Greifenklau (1719)

Relating back to the historical nature of Bamberg, one thing I found really cool about all the breweries was also the sense of history while in each.  All but 2 of the breweries we visited were older than the United States - which for those of you that are dreadfully awful at history means established before 1776.  Germany is also very proud of their beer brewing history and has a law called the "Reinheitsgebot" or the "German Purity Law" which became official in 1516.  Remarkably, the law existed until 1993, but all of the beers we had still abide by the 1516 purity law.  In other words, the recipes for the beers we drank we old, if not ancient.  Another cool think about visiting all the breweries was that your beers were served in an authentic stein, some glass and some clay, and all poured out of wooden kegs.  The stein's were less significant since every beer you order in Germany is served to you in a glass or stein of the same brand, but seeing the beer pouring out of the wooden kegs was a cool experience.  The most unique beer of the day was at Bamberg's most famous brewery - the Schlenkeria.  It was the second of 2 smoked beers we had throughout the day and this time there was no mistaking that the beer was actually smoked.  When we first got our beers, you could notice immediately that they smelled exactly like bacon.  And, unfortunately, the aftertaste was likewise.  It was definitely not my favorite beer of the day - well, actually it was my least favorite, but since smoked beers don't come around every day then I guess that makes it Bamberg's most famous.  Other than the history behind all the beers and breweries, it was a blast to hang out with other German university students for the day while learning traditional German drinking songs and getting the entire rooms full of people to sing along with us.  So after a long day of bouncing between brewery after brewery, we ended the day with a final beer at 11 to wrap up an awesome tour.

On Sunday, we woke up around 10 and made our way back to the city center for an incredible brunch at a sidewalk cafe.  We had waffles, yogurt, juice, potatoes, mushrooms, fish, rice, bread, tomatoes, cheeses, sausage, and the list goes on.  It was incredible and one of the best meals I have had in Germany.  After brunch, we made a trek up the hill to the Old Kings Palace and walked around for a while before finally heading back to Udo's apartment to pick up the cars for the drive back to Berlin.  Overall, it was an incredible trip and one of the most fun weekends yet here in Europe.  For a town that I knew nothing about before visiting, I can't imagine leaving Germany without having seen it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Following suit with our Stanford program's trip to Istanbul in the winter, Budapest grabbed the limelight for the spring quarter.  Thanks to a generous donor, our entire program had a fully funded 3 day trip to the Hungarian capital to gain both cultural and educational experiences.  Leaving early on a Wednesday morning, we arrived in Budapest at noon and immediately made our way to a local university to meet with a professor that briefed us on the political history of both Budapest and Hungary, providing a necessary background for grasping the current political system in place.  While not the most gripping speaker, the historical information provided definitely gave an interesting insight into the political apathy that characterizes the Hungarian population.  Although some speakers differed in opinions throughout the week, political apathy was by far the most prevalent and agreed-upon topic across the board.  After meeting with our first speaker, we took a bus tour of the city that stopped at various location where we could get off and see a few sights.  We first explored the Pest side - Buda and Pest are two cities, one on each side of the river, but combined make up Budapest.  We started at Heroes Square, then made our way to Saint Stephen's Basilica, and eventually crossed the river to Buda where we hiked through the small but cool Citadella castle.  After wrapping up a 3 hour tour of the city, which by no means was the entire city, we had an incredible dinner which included the best mushroom soup I have ever had, an awesome piece of white fish, and some radical chocolate dessert that was almost too much to handle.  Definitely one of the very best meals I have had while in Europe.

On Thursday morning, we woke up entirely too early to commute to another local university to meet with two professors who spoke to us about opinion polls in the country, which for me was very interesting being a sociology major.  Again, political apathy took command of the polls, but many other interesting opinions about education, government, and social class.  After the talk, myself and a few friends explored Budapest a bit by going to the local market where I had an interesting Hungarian pizza for lunch (fried bread like a funnel cake with some weird sauce on top - not good, not bad, but interesting).  After exhausting the market, we trekked across the river to Buda where we hiked up a path for some great views of the city before eventually making our way down the river to our mid-afternoon speaker.  This time we met with an economic expert who spoke about the current effects of the financial crisis, which can especially be seen in Hungary since they are in the EU but not the monetary EU, so they do not have the stabilization of the Euro.  Speaking of money, if I thought Copenhagen was ridiculous, then Budapest was incomprehensible.  Definitely not in terms of exchange rate, because Hungary is relatively cheap for everything, but 1 Euro equalled 290 Forents!  Upon exchanging money, I literally had two 10,000 Forent bills in my wallet.  No idea how to even process this, but felt like I was big time for a while, until a sandwich and soda cost 1600 Forent.  So after listening to how the country was/is effected by the economic crisis, I made my way to an island park in the middle of the Danube where I layed around for a while before making my way to yet another phenomenal dinner.  After dinner that although very good included entirely too much meat, we made our way to a rooftop bar to top off the night.

For our last day in Budapest, we again got up early Friday morning to meet with a EU representative from the foreign ministry.  This was by far the best speaker we met with throughout the week who gave us a great understanding of how Budapest functions internationally within the European Union.  After 2 hours which completely flew by, our other journalists which we were supposed to meet with cancelled so we had the entire day to explore the city.  A group of us took an entirely too long metro to tram to bus trip to the southern part of the city to Monument Park.  The park preserves many of the old communist sculptures and although cool to see larger than life statues, the bus rides there and back were actually way more fun and one of the most hilarious parts of the trip just joking around with the group.  After spending 3 hours total getting there and back and only 30 minutes at the park, we had a guided tour through the Hungarian Parliament which had more gold inside than I have ever seen in my life.  After the tour was over, a group of 5 of us made it to my personal highlight of the trip: Turkish Baths.  In Budapest, there are numerous public baths heated by natural underground hot springs both indoors and outdoors.  The Turkish Baths were enormous and had some incredible Ottoman architecture - while lounging in the pools, I literally felt like I was a king just kicking back for a day of relaxation at my personal palace.  Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but it was pretty cool to lay around in the baths.  Wrapping up the trip, we had one last dinner as a group followed by a hilarious Hungarian Elvis impersonator.  Probably more hilarious to see a Hungarian impersonating Elvis rather than him actually being good at what he does, but cheap entertainment none the less.  So that concluded our trip to Budapest.  It was an awesome trip with great scenery and sightseeing plus speakers that were ten times better than the speakers in Istanbul.  Overall, I had a great time and swimming/lounging in the Turkish Baths was by far the highlight of the trip and one of my European highlights as well.  So, until later, that was Budapest.

(My computer is broke right now, so hopefully if it gets fixed I can put pictures up, but for now text will have to suffice.)

Monday, April 20, 2009


After spending over 3 months on the same continent and not yet seeing each other, which sounds relatively insignificant except that this is Europe and you can travel very easily, I finally made it to Copenhagen to visit Nash for the weekend.  Leaving Berlin on Friday afternoon, I arrived in Copenhagen after a short 1 hour flight.  Since Copenhagen is part of the European Union but refrained from entering the monetary EU, I first had to exchange money and was shocked upon receiving 735 Kroner for 100 Euros.  However, while my wallet may have been flooded with 200 dollar bills, it was completely insignificant since everything in Copenhagen is so expensive!  For instance, my first purchase, a 4 zone train ride into the city from the airport, costed 38 Kroner, or over 5 Euro - you can get a day pass in Berlin for 6.40.  Since the city is so expensive, Nash and I figured it would be best to cook dinner instead of eating out.  As you can probably already guess, still expensive.  A case of beer, 3 chicken breasts, a bag of veggies, and a bag of chips cost 200 Kroner - and he already had the rice and soy sauce for stir-fry at home.  But anyway, we made it back to his place after buying groceries and cooked up a nice little meal.  He lives way out in the Copenhagen suburbs in a residential house with a roomate - a family lives on the 1st and 2nd floor but they have the basement all to themselves.  For a homestay scenario, it was a pretty nice setup - full kitchen, living room, bathroom, and a bedroom so not bad for living.  After cooking dinner and kicking back for a while, we hopped back on the train headed into the city for a night at the bars.  We met up with a few of his friends from his architecture program as well as some other people who were studying abroad and went to a couple bars.  Eventually, we decided to call it a night and headed back to his spot, but it was definitely a fun first night out in Denmark.

On Saturday, we made a sort of tour around the city.  We started off with a few games of Backgammon in Christiania.  Christiania is a hippie commune neighborhood in central Copenhagen that is completely separate from the Danish government - upon entering Christiania, you walk under a sign that says "Christiania".  Upon leaving, the sign says "You are now entering the EU."  Basically, the Danish government originally treated the commune as a social experiment and decided that it was not a harmful environment, so present day Christiania has many walk-up-and-order type restaurants, art shops, marijuana stands, street musicians, and residents.  It's definitely an entirely hippie community, but very friendly to the public and a fun spot to hang out.  So after a few games of Backgammon over lunch, we left and walked along the famous street Nyhavn which provides your postcard image for the city.  We also made it up and down a few shopping streets, by the river that runs through the city, and to a few other areas, but really there's not much of anything to do in Copenhagen - or at least that was my impression.  I had probably the most interesting vanilla ice cream cone I've ever had - it was basically half vanilla ice cream and half marshmallow fluff, leaving you dying of thirst after every bite.  After wrapping up a day in the city, we went back to his house and cooked dinner (like I said early, eating out is so expensive that Nash has only eaten out once after 3 months of being there).  And for Saturday night, we made our way back to Christiania where there was a live funk concert, which was a great way to wrap up the day.

Sunday pretty much illustrated my overall view of Copenhagen.  As I had already noticed there seemed to be nothing to do, Nash had no idea what to show me for my last day in the city.  So, upon at least an hour of brainstorming, we settled for going to Tivoli Gardens, even though the theme park did not look all that appealing.  But, with nothing else to do, Tivoli snatched the remaining money out of our pockets as we spent a day at the most polarized - great for the elderly and under 10 crowd but awful for anyone in between - amusement park I have ever been to.  However, we did ride one roller coaster which while not the best was actually fun.  So, we sat around and just hung out in the park for the day, and really didn't do much else.  And that was the trip.  Pretty simple, pretty basic, pretty bland, but fun since I had a friend there in the city to visit.  My overall impression of Copenhagen is extremely expensive, definitely the most expensive city I have been to (7 Euros for a beer at the bar), very small, and pretty basic.  Not the greatest impression, and no real reason to visit if you don't have a friend there, but another experience so no complaints on my end.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Portugal: Part 2

After spending a day hiking through stone castles in built in the 8th century, Thiago and I hopped on a train Monday night from Lisbon and headed to Porto. It was just a 3 hour ride north to Portugal's second largest city, so not bad at all transportation wise to get there. Originally, we had planned to head south during these two days to the Algarve coast, which has some incredible beaches, but the weather was rainy in the Algarve so we instead booked a last minute ticket to Porto the night before. It's fairly safe to say that I think we're both extremely glad we did because Porto was equally incredible and another beautiful city.

On Tuesday, we got up to wonder throughout the city. Porto is extremely small (even though it is Portugal's second biggest city, Portugal has only 11 million people total) so it made it very easy to walk everywhere. The first thing about Porto is the architecture is entirely different than the architecture in Lisbon. Lisbon is covered with white-washed buildings, red tile roofs, and more of a spanish-style look. Porto on the other hand has a more romanticized archicture, very old looking stone buildings with engravings worked into the walls or columns. For being in the same country and just over 300 km apart, the two cities appeared completely different and I could have sworn we were in a different country. We started off by making our way to a pastry shop, which I'm pretty sure we did at least 6 or 7 times in Porto! If you've ever been to Seattle, it's not an exaggeration that there is a Starbucks on every corner. Or if you've been to Berlin, there's a Doner stand on every corner and then another one in between. It's the same idea with pastry shops in Portugal - they are everywhere and impossible to resist! Anyway, I'm sure we grabbed lunch there on Tuesday before making our way down to the river front where we probably got another pastry on the way. If Porto pastries aren't what you prefer to satisfy your sweet tooth, then the river front would have sufficed because the view is pure eye-candy. The city of Porto situates itself basically in the same way Lisbon does - the Atlantic ocean is about 20 km or so away and a river inlet from the ocean runs through the city. In Porto, the river lies in a valley with the city rising up on each side with beautifully arched bridges spanning the two sides. After taking a few photos, we sat down at a side walk cafe and ordered a couple drinks while further admiring the view. Deciding that even more views would be nice, we made our way an hour or so later to the top of a tower the overlooks the city, a few other monuments, and eventually to a park. The park was definitely the best part of the day - it sat on one of the large hills that overlooks the river and we layed around again admiring views and I even fell asleep for a while in the grass. Theme of the trip - plan a little for each day and just sit back and relax, but still get to see a lot. It's definitely the way to do a vacation as long as you have enough time. I really feel like I appreciated Portugal much more because I was able to just lay around, have a convo here or there, see things at a leisurely pace, etc. So that wrapped up our first day in Porto, which was definitely a nice start to seeing the city.

Alright - so before I jump into our last full day in Porto and also in Portugal, let me build this up a little bit. First of all, whenever I think back on Portugal, this day is the first image that comes into my mind. Actually, I've probably thought about Wednesday in Porto every single day since the trip. If you've ever had the quintessential day at some point in your life where you think, "man - if every day could be just like this," then this was that day for me. So we woke up Wednesday morning, hopped on a city bus (which was a much better bus system than Lisbon) and took a 30 minute ride to Foz, a coastal suburb of Porto. We had no specific plans for the day, were dying to be on the beach since Algarve fell through, and with the weather we had there was absolutely no way were were going home without spending a day by the water. We started off by wondering up and down the coast for a while, hiking out on rocks the jut out into the ocean, and soaking up some sun. Thiago brought a mini soccer ball with us, so we also spent about an hour making freestyle videos which was hilarious. If you look at the pictures in the photo album of the columns along the beach, there's another sidewalk about 15 feet below the columns. After many failed attempts, we made a pretty sweet video of us juggling back and forth between sidewalks, Thiago down below and me up above. While I'd love to say we got it on the first take, it was actually hilarious how many times we messed up, or I would hit somebody walking by down below because I wouldn't see them from up above and would pass the ball down anyway. But eventually, we found success. Remember kids - never give up and you too can conquer the world. After deciding that the freestyle session was over, we sat down at an oceanside cafe for a mid-day lunch. We had an delicious plate of duck risotto for only 3.50 each, again illustrating how cheap Portugal was. Once we finished lunch, we strolled a bit further down the coast where we stumbled upon a beach cafe, which is where my slice-of-heaven day hit its peak. We had 4 hours still before we had to catch our train back to Lisbon, so we figured why not sit around some more and enjoy the view. Just after we sat down, we met a Polish girl who was studying in Porto through the Erasmus program, which is definitely the greatest exchanged program ever if you're a European Union citizen. Once accepted, you can pretty much just say I want to go study here or there for this or that amount of time and then you go. It's incredible really, and the states should seriously look into adopting a similiarly structure program. So we sat around talking to her for a couple hours as we layed around in beach loungers while sipping Caipirinhas and listening to a smooth set of global grooves. Caipirinhas by the way are "the" drink. Delicious, sweet, and perfect for a warm sunny day - and this was unquestionably the perfect day. There's nothing better than having nothing to do, finding a delicious drink, meeting a beautiful girl, relaxing to some smooth grooves, lying around in beach chair, and listening to the ocean all while soaking up the view on the Portuguese coast. It was literally one of the best days from beginning to end that I have ever had in my life, and if only this one random Wednesday in Porto could be on repeat, I'd probably drop everything and go right back. But, life is good here too, so for now it will have to remain a sweet memory in my mind.

So that wrapped up our week in Portugal. It was incredible getting to spend so much time in such a beautiful country all while travelling with my best friend. Lisbon is now my favorite city in Europe that I have been too - it has the perfect combination of a laid-back atmosphere, nice people, beautiful views, yet plenty to do. And likewise, Porto was also a beautiful city where as you know by now I had the best day of our trip. It's too bad that this is all just a memory now, but there's no question that the time I spent in Portugal will stay with me for the rest of my life. So, until later, take care, sit back, enjoy life, soak up a view, live at a slower pace - you'll appreciate it in the long run.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Portugal: Part 1

September 2008: Thiago and I begin to talk about spring break. Ibiza immediately takes the lead. 2 weeks later in September, Ibiza falls through after we realize that no one goes to Ibiza unless it is during the summer months. October 2008: We continue to spend every waking minute of the day thinking about Europe, and Greece becomes the frontrunner for spring break. However, after realizing that we would rather go to Crete instead of Athens and that Crete is rather hard to get to, Greece falls apart. November 2008: Athens, Lisbon, Prague, South of France, Sardegna, and Corsica are all considered for spring break. We are a wreck and cannot make up our minds. December 2008: Lisbon takes the lead. After looking at pictures of Sintra, we think Portugal might actually be the place. February 2009: After much debate and months of trying to decide, we buy plane tickets to Lisbon. Therefore, as the story unfolds, spring break Portugal...

After catching a quick one-hour flight from Madrid on Friday afternoon, we arrived to the beautifully sunny Lisbon airport from which we took a bus transfer to our hostel. Immediately upon exiting the airport, the first thing we noticed was that all the taxis were Mercedes. Nice. Not a bad way to say hello to your guests. While we took the bus to the center of the city upon arrival, we would only later realize that on our return trip to the airport at the end of the week that a 20 minute taxi ride costs only $7.50. Shocking, but true. One thing that I looked up when I got back to Berlin is that Portugal is the cheapest country in western Europe, something that I'm sure you'll realize as I go about this blog. So, we arrived a little after 5 at our hostel, completely exhausted from going out the previous night in Madrid, and took a much needed nap. Of all the hostels I've stayed at throughout Europe, this was by far the best. We paid only 15 euros a night (per person), had our beds made for us every day and our room cleaned, breakfast laid out for us every morning, free internet, and the friendliest staff yet. Plus, we were only a block from the river and just a 5 minute walk from the train station and center of the city. So, after finally waking up Friday night, we went to the grocery store where we bought the most inexpensive dinner I have ever purchased at any grocery store (and I do all my grocery shopping for myself in Berlin, so I've gotten to know prices fairly well). To give you an idea, the water in Portugal is not the best to drink, so we purchased 1.5 liter bottled water for only 12 cents a bottle! Thiago and I are still trying to figure out how they make any money off of this. We took the food back and cooked dinner in our hostel's kitchen as we did every night, and had a great pasta and pork steak meal. After finishing dinner, we went out to explore the Lisbon nightlife which is unlike any other nightlife I have seen before. For the first night, which was Friday, we decided to explore the bar scene and were told we should head to the Baixa district. After hiking up the hills of the city, we finally arrived to see thousands upon thousands of people roaming the streets. Having no idea what the social scene was here, we decided to follow the people to figure out where everyone was going, only to realize that the streets ARE the location. In the Baixa district, there are hundreds of tiny little bars that serve sangria and beer for only a euro a glass, and everyone buys their drink and then brings it back out onto the street. The cool part about it too is first off all it's not age exclusive; there were just as many 16 year olds as 25 year olds as 50 year olds all participating in the nightlife. It's also not a loud and crazy atmosphere, just a chill spot to kick back and have a few drinks with your friends. I've literally never seen anything like it where thousands of people just show up to an area of about 5 square blocks to hang out outside every night. It's really quite a cool thing to see and be a part of. The funniest thing by far this night, and an ongoing joke between Thiago and I for the entire trip, is we were offered hash and coke at least 50 times just in this one night. These well-dressed guys would walk up to you (also in the pure daylight as happened to me throughout the weekend) and say "hashish, coca?" It was hilarious and by the end of the trip I would be saying "no" out loud before someone even offered just by the way they were walking towards me. I found out that the quickest way to get rid of them is to just start speaking German because they clearly know at this point they can't communicate. So after a few delicious sangrias and hanging out amongst the crowd Friday night we headed back to the hostel to sleep before our first full day in Lisbon.

After waking up Saturday morning at our own pace, we strolled out of the hostel around 11 or so and headed toward the Castelo de São Jorge. After finally reaching the castle, which was just a few blocks from our hostel but all uphill, we walked through the castle gates and probably spent around 2 hours or so inside. For the first hour, Thiago and I found a stone bench carved into the castle wall and sat while we admired the panoramic view of Lisbon looking out both onto the river and into the city streets. It was a great view from the top as the castle sits atop one of the tallest hills in Lisbon, and was also nice to lay around in the sunshine and warmth that I had not seen in Berlin. Once we decided we had sat long enough, we walked about the castel walls until finally leaving a couple hours later. The castle really was not that big, but had such good views of the city from the top that we decided to stay for quite some time. After leaving the first castle of the trip, we took the public bus, which was a pure nightmare of a public transportation system, to the other side of Lisbon where we went through a monastery and small tower along the river. These were both fairly quick sites to see, and luckily we got in free to both thanks to being students. Upon finishing up our sightseeing for the day, we made our way back to the hostel where we again took a nap before this time heading to a club. The club scene in Lisbon is also unique, but in a different way than the bars. For being such a laid-back city, many of the clubs are ridiculously exclusive. For instance, there were clubs upon clubs that you could not enter unless you were willing to consume minimum 100 euros of drinks. And for the college kid, while a bottle of Don Perignon certainly signals baller status, it just wasn't in the cards. We did find a cool club though right on the water (it was also ladies night so that was a big plus) where we ended up dancing for most of the night which wrapped up our first full day in Lisbon.

On Sunday, Thiago and I headed to Cascais, a small beach town that was just a 45 minute train ride outside of the city. We basically walked up a down the coast for the day, hiked the rugged cliffs that lined the ocean, and enjoyed yet another day in the sun. We were a bit unfortunate not to rent bikes (well, we rented one). The city tourism office rents out bikes for free to visitors, and they have 3 stands set up throughout the city. We got to the first stand and they only had one bike, so we took it anyway and walked to the other 2 stands to pick up another, but both were completely rented out. Slightly unfortunate, but made for some hilarious attempts at double-biking. After walking up and down the coast for the day, we grabbed a couple beers and sat around for an hour or so on the beach just hanging out. I guess there wasn't much more to Cascais - maybe worth mentioning is the Boca de Inferno which is a huge archway in the cliffs where waves fly in and explode on the rocks. Other than that, just an quaint picturesque beach town which is nice to do for a day of relaxing.

Monday- Sintra. The original inspiration for going to Lisbon, we took another 45 minute train ride outside the city to the mountainous region. This time it was Thiago and I, plus another Stanford student Oliver who was in town for a couple days, and a Brazilian girl we met on the train who hung out with us for the day. After winding our way up the mountain for an hour, we finally reached the top and headed first to the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle). Walking through the castle, hiking up the stone walls and through the archways, it literally felt like you were walking through a Disney set. From the top, we had incredible views of the country side surrounding the castle in addition to the ocean just a short distance away. We hiked through the castle for a couple hours, climbing every pathway and tower, until we'd finally run out of things to see. Following the Moorish castle, we hiked across a ridge to the Palacio de Pena, again which appeared to be straight out of Disney. Like the former, the castle had equally beautiful views from the top, and we sat around like we did the whole trip just admiring the scenery. Adjacent and surrounding the palace is a huge park that has hundreds of endagered plants and trees and is beautifully landscaped. We wandered through this park for a while, and probably the funniest thing of the day was feeding both a white and black swan. Thiago had an apple so we decided to break off pieces and see if we could get the swan to take them from our hands. I was the first to do so, and I think Thiago got it on video, which is probably pretty hilarious cut the swan bit the sh*% out of my fingers and I'm pretty sure I reacted with a few pretty loud explicitives. I definitely did not realize it until after the fact, but swans have these go-go-gadget like necks that extend extremely far, and the damn swan definitely overjudged where the apple was in relation to my fingers. Made for a funny experience anyway. So, this wrapped up our day in Sintra. The city is absolutely beautiful, and there's a ton more to see that we didn't have time to do. I think we all wish we would have had more time there, but Thiago and I had to get back to Lisbon to catch a 3-hour train to Porto.

24 Hours in Madrid

After writing 2 film essays, taking a German language final and moving across the city, I headed out on an early flight Thursday morning for 24 hours in Madrid before Thiago and I were to leave for a week in Portugal. As I tried to keep my eyes open on the train ride to the airport, I was thinking how nice Spain was going to be since it was going to be the complete opposite of Berlin in many aspects: warm and sunny plus the cultural. I further decided in my head that if any one culture in Western Europe were to be the complete antithesis of German culture, I would probably pick the Spanish culture to fill this category. Having already seen Barcelona but not yet Madrid, I was fairly confident this was true. However, should there be any doubt left in my mind, a 2 hour flight day (all of French public/private transportation decided to go on strike this day messing up flights throughout Europe) erased any residual doubt. Germans, for the most part, tend to be very much to themselves especially in public places. No one makes eye contact, people talk very quietly amongst small groups, and body language is at a bare minimum. So while sitting/sleeping in the airport waiting for our flight, I awoke to a group of Spaniards sitting in a circle playing the guitar, with the German's just looking at them awkwardly, yet trying to hide the fact that they were actually looking. I just started laughing, and frankly I was pretty excited to be jetting off to a different culture. A change of pace was going to be nice.

Finally I got to Madrid and met Thiago at my hostel for the night. I wasn't able to stay with him at his homestay - in Spanish culture it is apparently not common to invite guests into the home until you have known them for a least a full year. Instead, they meet at public places such as parks, bars, and restaurants. The Stanford in Madrid program is very different from our Berlin program in many ways, one of which is that the students in Madrid eat lunch and dinner with their host families every day. So, upon meeting Thiago, he immediately had to leave for lunch which was completely fine with me as I wanted to go do sightseeing stuff that he had undoubtedly already done. Walking around the city was extremely nice, for the most part because it was 72 degrees and I saw the sun the entire day! This just does not seem to happen back in Berlin. I walked throughout Sol, an area of the city near my hostel, through plazas and down streets that had what I thought was some pretty cool architecture. During the day, I saw Plaza Mayor, Plaza Espana, and the Palacio Real. The Palacio Real was incredible, wish I could have gone inside, and had a nice garden/park area at the base of the palace in which hundreds of people were lounging and soaking up a few rays. After spending a couple hours roaming the city, I met up with Thiago in Retiro Park, the only thing I told him I had to see while I was in Madrid. The park is incredible and extremely massive, likely comparable to Central or Golden Gate Park. While I have been to the latter of those two but not Central Park, Retiro Park is definitely my favorite park I have seen. There were thousands upon thousands of people in the park, an enormous lake, plenty of green space, and paths lined with flowers, street vendors and artists. We spent probably an entire 3 hours in the park, just laying around, messing around with a mini soccer ball, and also running into at least 7 or 8 other people from the Madrid program. The nice thing about Spanish culture is that it is so laid back: the people walk slower, eat at 2 and 10, use the parks on their lunch breaks, and are generally not concerned so much with time. It was perfect just to lay around in the sun for the day as the sun is the thing I have missed the most while being in Berlin (after my family of course!).

After spending some time hanging out with Thiago, he eventually had to go back to have dinner with his host family, so I went and hung out at my hostel for a few hours before going out that night. One thing I noticed in Madrid during the day, or maybe I should say one thing that was impossible not to notice, was that Madrid has the most beautiful women you have ever seen in your life. And I'm honestly not exaggerating. At least 1 of every 2 women you see is not just good looking but is absolutely gorgeous. If you follow soccer, I can now see why Cristiano Ronaldo said he would consider a move to Real Madrid just for the women. Anyway, I don't know how this many attractive people ended up all in one place, but I can understand why Thiago enjoys Madrid so much. After Thiago had finished his dinner with his host family, I met up with him and 3 other girls from the Madrid program that night to go out dancing. As I've noted before, it's been an interesting scene throughout Europe going to a club to dance, usually more so on the negative side of things than the positive. On the whole, I've enjoyed bars much more than clubs, but Madrid definitely made me question this. As I told Thiago, if every night at a dance club were like the night in Madrid, I would be at the club every night. We had a phenomenal time dancing all night with the girls, the club had a great setup and played great music, and overall it was by far my best club experience. The key really to having a good time is to make sure you go with a group of girls, because contrary to the US, you do not meet nor dance with girls you just met in the European clubs. It's just a different scene. So, after getting home from the club and getting 2 hours of sleep before I had to check out of my hostel, Thiago and I headed off on Friday to Portugal for our spring break week. Madrid was an incredible city, and I truly wish I could have spent more time there, but for only having 24 hours, I'd say I definitely made the most of it. Just means that someday I should go back, which is never a bad thing.

As always, photos have been updated.


Again, it's been a long time since I've posted on this blog. With the chaos of finals week, moving homestays, saying goodbye to the winter group, and heading off for spring break, the blogs have taken a back seat. But don't worry - they're back in action and hopefully within the next week or so everything will be up to date. So here it is, beginning with Amsterdam.

Back in the beginning of March, Remi, Tenzin, Tenzin's cousin, and myself headed off for another weekend of travel to Amsterdam, city of red lights, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, canals, and oddly constructed buildings. Remi and I arrived late Friday night, luckily with a place to stay as Remi had a former frat brother who is studying law abroad and had a place in the center of the city. Besides our group of four, two other kids from the Stanford program in Madrid met up with us. On Friday night, we all went out for a night of bar hopping throughout the city. The bar scene was okay, nothing special, and for the most part Berlin's bars are much better, but still a pretty fun Friday night.

On Saturday, Remi and I got up to explore the city for a bit. We started it off by taking a free 3-hour walking tour, hosted by an extremely good tour guide who literally seemed to know everything about the city. My first question for him was if I was seeing things, or if the building were actually slanted and actually did hang over the roads. He pointed out that all the building have these wooden boards mounted at the top with a large metal ring. Because it was difficult the carry furniture and other items up to the top floors, they would fashion a pully system through these metal rings to hoist items up to the top floors. This means that the buildings actually need to slant over the road so that whatever is being hoisted to the top does not scrape against the buildings. Makes for some interesting architecture as you feel as if you're walking through some sort of expressionist set to a play, or maybe it is normal to see slanted buildings on every street. The walking tour was actually very good and extremely informative, the only problem is it was hosted in Amsterdam. My main complaint with Amsterdam, besides the aweful food, is that I felt like I saw the entire city in 10 minutes. Yes, I realize I did not have the desire to go see works of Van Gogh or the Heineken museum, but the city itself looks exactly the same all over. Each street has the same looking slanted brick buildings, the same looking canal, the same ridiculously tall people, and of course bicycles. Another random question I asked our tour guide, again regarding if I was seeing things or not, is that I swore all the people, especially men, were way taller and had much bigger frames than a normal sized person. He again confired I was not hallucinating, and that actually the Dutch are the second biggest white race in the world behind the Danish. They are massive people. Overall, on Saturday Remi and I basically spent the entire day walking, partially because of the tour and partially because we got lost for 3 hours. The city of Amsterdam is firstly a nightmare to navigate for the reasons already mentioned in that everything looks the same, but also because of it's layout. The center of Amsterdam is surrounded by horseshoe-shaped roads and canals, so every street is curving in a half circle. This made it a complete nightmare for us to try and figure out which direction we were going and it's probably a miracle that we made it back to our place to stay by the end of the day.

The red light district: actually not nearly as cool or big as it is hyped up to be. Basically, if you don't already now, the district gets its name because prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. The prostitutes rent out small little rooms along the street with windows that are illuminated with red lights from which comes the name. I must admit, it is pretty funny to walk through the district and see a man walk out of the room as the prostitute opens the curtains again. Other than sex, you can also legally buy marijuana all throughout Amsterdam, although again most places are located in the red light. However, the district is not nearly as big nor as crazy as I had pictured in my head before arriving. Another tour guide fact, the red light district won't be there by 2015, but at the rate the current government in power is shutting down coffee shops and red light shops, it will be nonexistent by 2012. Over the past 5 years, the number of coffee shops and red light shops being shot down has doubled each year, starting with 4 the first year and rapidly working its way up. So, if you want to go get there while you can, because it probably won't exist in 5 years time. Although as seems to be the case with everything in Amsterdam, it will just go underground but won't actually go away.

Other random facts about Amsterdam. Beware, or you will get killed by one of the millions of bicycles flying about the city. Every single person in Amsterdam rides their bike everywhere, and they do not stop for pedestrians. Also, for someone who lives in Amsterdam for at least 8 years, they will go through an average of 30 bikes in their lifetime due to theft and wear-and-tear. A tip for males: do not pee on the corners of buildings after a night of drinking. Amsterdam city officials are so mad at people peeing in the streets that on every building corner they have installed "piss deflectors" as you can see in one of my pictures. So, if you do decide to go pee here, it will literally bounce right back onto your legs and shoes. Gross, but pretty funny to think that the government paid to have these installed everywhere. Urinals are also very open. Think of a portapotty on the street corner, but just the toilet and no actual portapotty. No big deal I guess - it is Amsterdam. All in all, Amsterdam was a fun weekend, but definitely just a one time trip. There's really no reason to go back, and I definitely would not recommend it for tourists. It's basically an overrated destination/experience for the college student that can actually be found to a much greater extent in other European cities. Then again, if Anne Frank, Van Gogh, or Heineken is your thing, maybe Amsterdam is the travel destination for you.

A big thanks to our tour guide for the weekend. While Amsterdam was definitely not my favorite city I have seen, I know by far more about Amsterdam than any other city I have travelled to thanks to a free walking tour.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcome to London

The EasyJet pilot took me to the wrong city. He did - I'm sure of it. I know this because I was supposed to be flying to London last weekend, but on a Saturday in the month of February the weather in London is not 62 degrees fahrenheit. If it is 62 degrees fahrenheit, it is definitely not sunny, and by sunny I mean not a cloud in the sky for the entire day. In February, the weather in London is in the upper 40's, lower 50's, with cloud cover, ALL DAY, and constant rain. And if it doesn't rain on Saturday, then it definitely rains on Sunday, right? I knew the pilot didn't fly me to London.

For whatever city I did go to, I arrived late on Friday night and took an hour bus charter into the city center where Hayley lives. For those of you who don't know, Hayley is one of my best friends from high school, is studying abroad in London through a Mizzou program, and has a flat in the city with 5 other girls. I got to call the living room couch my home for the weekend, which had a big plus and a big minus. The Plus: I am a cheap college student and did not have to pay for a hostel / had a place to stay for the weekend. The Minus: the London Tube (train) is incredibly noisely and just happens to be located 5 floors below and directly adjacent to their flat. No reason to bring an alarm - this makes for a wonderfully pleasant 6am "good-morning to you sir." Anyway, Friday night Hayley and I and some of her friends just sat around her flat, hung out, and eventually crashed for the full day on Saturday.

Saturday morning: I met all 5 of her roommates before 9am. Seriously, how the hell do you meet 5 (6 including Hayley) college students on a Saturday morning before the hour of 9am? One huge difference about London is the city is on a completely different time schedule than Berlin. For nightlife, pubs close at 11, 12 if you're lucky, and clubs usually close at 2 or 3. This means that you actually get in much earlier and do not wake up in the middle of the day. Kinda nice, although weird when at 9pm people are freaking out because you haven't yet found a bar to start your night. In Berlin, I would be getting into the shower at 9. Anyway...we woke up early Saturday morning and headed out into the city for a day of sightseeing. I literally came to London with no idea about anything in the city - what I wanted to do, history, tourist spots, etc. - so I just told Hayley to show me what she thought I should see. It worked out great because I saw a ton and everything is located relatively close together so you can pack in a full day. First of all (if you didn't catch on already), the weather was 62 and sunny all day - by far the most beautiful day yet in Europe and reminded me exactly of what the weather is like back on our California campus many days in the winter. To start the day, we headed to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and then made our way back toward the Thames and walked along the river to the Tower Bridge. Luckily Hayley was still alive at this point after almost being impaled by a guard's golden sword at some random place we encountered earlier in the day. We were walking under an achway (no idea where we were) and upon exiting the other side there were two guards on horses on either side of the arch. Naturally, Hayley and I both turn around to look at them, when suddenly we hear a man yell, "STEP ASIDE FOR THE GUARD" in the deepest voice known to man. I turn around to see Hayley narrowly escape death by a few feet because this guard was not about to halt for anyone. After making it to the tower Bridge, where we passed by a sweet looking castle by the river, we hopped onto the Tube and made our way to Hyde Park. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch along the way and ate as we strolled through the park. Hyde Park is massive by the way - probably similar to the size of a Golden Gate or Central Park. After walking through the park for about half an hour, we stumbled upon a sizable lake packed with people in paddle boats. How could you not rent a paddle boat on a day like this - it should be a crime to pass this up. As you can imagine, we rented a boat and cruised about the river for a while as we mastered our crew skills. Being modest, I dominated Hayley in the rowing competition. The lake was great, but it actually is fairly difficult to navigate a little boat via a couple wooden oars that keep popping out of their harnesses. Upon leaving the lake, we walked to Harrod's - the world's biggest and most ridiculously expensive department store. (Random info: Berlin has the 2nd biggest with KaDeWe). We had the best chocolate sunday I've ever had - although I'll still take Rome's gelato over Harrod's ice cream any day. After an ice cream break, we made our way back to the Thames river, walked along and looked at Parliament and the London Eye, and eventually made our way to 5 o'clock. The area below the London Eye was great - packed with street performers and vendors which reminded my a lot of the area along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We packed in almost more than possible Saturday, and as is fitting with London's early time schedule compared to Berlin, sat down to eat at 5.

We had dinner with a couple of her friends at an Irish pub where we also watched the Man United game. I played the role of your stereotypical tourist and had fish-and-chips (f.y.i. - chips=fries, crisps=chips, and biscuts=cookies). After dinner, we made our way back to her area and went out with some more of her friends to a couple pubs before finding a bar/lounge type place in East London. Hilarious moment (one seems to happen on every trip): we are leaving the lounge at the end of our night and for some reason everyone wants to go get hotdogs. Really? I get it that we are all drunk at this point and people want food, but seriously, a hot dog? Anyhow, we pay 18 pounds for a taxi to take us to Picadilly Circus where the owner of the hot dog stand knows half of our group by name and gives them discounts for being regular customers. Unfortunately, I do have to admit this was the best hot dog I have ever had - so thank you to our drunken hosts who dragged my reluctant self to a hot dog stand in the middle of the night. (And sorry if these moments aren't actually funny - I am sure that they're probably much funnier in my own memory).

Sunday morning we were out of the house by 10 to go to a market that we thought would be open. Theme of the trip: it was not open. This is not necessarily the theme though because of this particular market. This was the theme because the London Tube sucks! Apparently the train works great during the week because the city of London does not shut down lines during this time so that it does not interrupt the working day. However, on the weekends they shut down probably about 20% of the lines to do repairs, construction, whatever, and most of these lines happen to go to the tourist spots. Not exaggerating, we probably had to take round-about ways 1/2 the time we travelled in the city because a certain line we needed was closed. It was comical for the weekend, but it would drive me insane if I lived there. So after getting to the awesome food market that was not actually open, we made our way to Abbey Road and saw the Beatles recording studio and where the famous album cover was shot. Not much to see, but cool to be in the spot of one of my favorite groups of all times. The first music purchase I ever made was 2 Beatles cassettes, "The Magical Mystery Tour" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely," so it was personally cool for me to walk across a seemingly random intersection just for those purposes. To finish up the weekend, we went to a pub as one should to watch the Fulham football match before I caught my bus back to the airport. Great and fitting way to end the weekend - the pubs were one of the things I loved most about London. There is literally a pub on every corner and everyone has their local pub they go to regularly. After the game, I unfortunately had to say goodbye to London as I truly did not want to leave.

After having now visited three cities outside of Berlin, London is the only place I can actually say that I wish Berlin were more like. Most of this stems from the program that Hayley and the other Mizzou students are in - so I'm actually saying I wish our program was more like theirs. First of all, they all live together and in the center of the city. More so, all the other Mizzou students live in surrounding flats within only a few blocks. In Berlin, everyone is very spread out for living quarters. Personally, I am in a very residential area, which unfortunately I grow to dislike more and more every day. Luckily though, I am moving in the spring quarter to a very commercial area that I am sure I will enjoy the new location much more than my current spot. Also, because it will be commercial, it will be extremely nice (like London) to have pubs, restaurants, cafes, and stores on every street. Another thing I really like about their program in London is that they have class in an actual London university. This makes it exponentially easier to make friends and get connected into the local scene. Not to mention here in Berlin our university is way out in the suburbs, which has very polarized pros and cons. After leaving London, I now have a much more keen perspective on what is good and what is not good about our program here in Berlin. In most ways unfortunately, I'm starting to wish it were different. However, don't confuse this with the idea that I do not like the program I am in here. I love most of it. I'm just more aware now that there are many ways in which I would change it to make it better and more receptive to college aged kids.

All in all, I'm extremely glad I went to London. London is a city that I would have never visited had Hayley not been there, so thank god she was because it is now my favorite city I have travelled to. It is not necessarily the best time in a city (Rome is almost untouchable in that category) but definitely my favorite city. There is nothing in Rome or Istanbul that I would wish to bring back to Berlin (except Roman gelatto, which Berlin has, just not as tasty), but there are aspects of London that I would love to see here in my northern European home. I would also go back to London in a heartbeat if I knew that it was going to be 62 and sunny again, but being realistic that is rather unlikely to happen. Anyway, thanks to Hayley for a great time in a great city. I'll definitely be back.

"The Photo Collection" album from January has been updated.