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.