All Good Things

The end has come.

After 17 countries (if you count Vatican City), 22 flights (including layovers), 8 train rides, 16 hostels, 8 currencies, 14 official languages, 2 amusement parks, 3 prisons, and only one major injury, to say the past four months were eventful would be the understatement of the year. I’ve attempted to write about my most notable events and experiences here, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve also completely left out my entire trip along the Mediterranean I just returned from this morning, since I sadly don’t have the time to put two weeks of incredible experiences into words. But as I’m flying home to the U.S. tomorrow, I figure I’d do a little reflecting about this semester and if it actually gave me anything besides great memories and an empty bank account.

I know it’s cliche to blabber on about how much you learn from study abroad, but it’s true. I can do most metric to English conversions (and vice versa) in my head now. I know a lot more about certain countries’ culture, history, politics, art, food, and alcohol, among other things. I can even say basic words and phrases in most languages of the countries I visited, including a few choice curse words.

However, there’s so much more to the learning that comes from going abroad than facts and information. I’ve improved in so many skill areas, including cooking, travel planning, finding my way around a foreign place (still very much a work in progress though), managing money, singing, rock climbing, acrobatics, etc. I’ve discovered a lot about how I behave in new and unfamiliar situations, which I firmly believe is the true test of a person’s character. Most importantly, I truly feel that I’ve become more balanced, in multiple aspects of my life. I’m now even more ambitious when it comes to travel and seeing tons of sights in a short period of time, but I’ve become much better at relaxing and stopping to smell the roses once in a while. I’ve become better at meeting and talking with new people (if you can believe that), but have also become more okay with solitude and self-reflection.

So, what to do with all this newfound self-realization? I figure that as my study abroad semester comes to a close, I should develop some goals for the future. After all, a “life-changing” experience doesn’t really mean anything unless you actually use it to change your life, right? This is meant to a few international and travel-related things I’d like to do, not a full-on bucket list. Coming up with these was a bit difficult since some aren’t tangible and so many of them overlap, but here they are:

  • Actually live in a country outside the U.S. at some point. The reason I say “actually” is because I didn’t truly live in the same Denmark as the locals. Sure, I went to the same grocery stores/restaurants/bars, but I was always a visitor. I don’t mean to criticize my study abroad program, since they gave us more immersion opportunities you could ever hope for, but I’d like to actually immerse myself in a new country rather than be a temporary visitor. I’m not 100% sure I’d want to come back to Denmark (the fact that it hailed today–on June 1st–put a lot of doubt in my mind), but I’m definitely contemplating applying for the DIS internship after graduation.
  • Travel by myself. I would have never thought to do this before this semester, but after meeting dozens of people doing it, it seems like an incredibly liberating experience. Traveling alone also allows for more spontaneity, which is something else I’d like to try out. How cool would it be to go to the airport or train station, choose a destination, and just go?
  • Stay in places for longer. In my quest to go to as many destinations as possible during these four months, I spent an average of two or three days in each city/country. This was enough for some places, but staying for more time offers you a richer experience and more accurate picture of the location and the people.
  • Go to more places off the beaten path. I traveled to mostly large, metropolitan European cities this semester which each have a unique charm and character, but aside from train rides through the countryside, I completely missed the “heartland”.
  • Work harder at giving back to the community. I know I’ve spent a large amount of money the past few months and I completely understand and appreciate how lucky I am that I was able to do this. I’d like to help those less fortunate to be able to have experiences to see the world, since it doesn’t seem right to spend so much solely on my personal enjoyment.
  • Get my hands on a nice camera and actually learn how to take pictures. So many Kodak moments were ruined by too much sunlight, too little sunlight, things being too far away, things moving too quickly, etc.
  • Become fluent in French and Mandarin…and if I pick up a few more languages along the way, that’s fine with me.
  • As my all-time favorite sign (from Malmø, Sweden) says, “refuse to stay still”. There’s so much to do and see in this crazy world and far too little time to become complacent.

America, I’ll be back to you before you know it. I’m expecting to have major reverse culture shock and SAW (a new acronym I coined for “study abroad withdrawal”), but if there’s one thing this semester has taught me, it’s that you can have jaw-dropping, awe-inspring, laugh-inducing, thought-provoking, perspective-changing experiences anywhere. You don’t need to go abroad…although it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Thanks for reading, have a great summer, and refuse to stay still!

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Springtime for Europe

Hi there, remember me? I know it’s been eons time since I’ve updated this, but a lot has been going on here between traveling, finals, and enjoying my last few weeks in Denmark.

Nevertheless, here is my attempt to provide you with a brief summary of what I’ve been up to since spring break:

Travel

  • I spent a weekend in Paris with my roommate Zack, which was infinitely better than my first trip to the City of Lights due to the fact that I didn’t get food poisoning this time. Aside from getting pickpocketed (all they managed to take was a few Euros and a SIM card), staying in an awful hostel in a dangerous neighborhood, and nearly missing my flight (and having to pay 75 Euros for a cab) back to Copenhagen, it was an epic trip. We managed to be tourists and see most of the notable Parisian attractions (Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, Opera Garnier, Luxembourg Gadens, Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, Bastille, etc.), but we also got to meet locals (aka Zack’s friends) and get a taste for what life is like for French youths. I also got to brush up on my French, a language I haven’t taken since high school. I remembered a lot more than I thought I would and can proudly say that I can give complex instructions to a taxi driver when I have to catch a flight in an hour but need to travel 30+ miles in traffic before getting on the plane. 
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  • The following weekend, I traveled to Poland with my “Auschwitz: From Genocide to Memorial” class to actually see the place we had been reading and hearing about for months. Where do I begin? Visiting Auschwitz I-Stammlager and Auschwitz II-Birkeneau is an incredibly powerful experience, but not in the way you might think. In fact, it’s very easy to feel detached and disconnected at the camps, due to several factors. The two camps have been turned into museums; they contain plenty of important information for sure, but it’s also hard to fully grasp the tragedies behind all of the signs and placards. There’s also the constant crowds of people. 1.4 million people visited the camps in 2011; during high season, the camp feels like a giant photo opportunity instead of a memorial. Lastly, the gorgeous weather and picturesque landscape of the camps (particularly Birkeneau) occasionally made me forget that this wasn’t simply a beautiful garden. Our professor Torben, who has become my new favorite person, told us on the first day of class not to force ourselves to feel a certain way at the camps. It’s fine if you don’t cry or feel a deep connection to the victims, he said. He further explained that even if we felt removed at the camps, they would leave a profound effect on us afterwards, and that has absolutely been the case for me. I’ve been reading up as much as I can about the Holocaust and other genocides, but more importantly, I’ve lived more gratefully, since I luckily managed to be born in the right place at the right time. I can’t fully articulate the effect Auschwitz had on me since I’m not exactly sure what it was yet, but if you’re interested, talk to me in person.

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On a slightly unrelated note, Krakow is an extremely underrated city. The Old Town Square’s looks exactly like Prague’s, but is far less congested and tourist-ridden. The food is great (as it is in the rest of Poland, I’m sure), the Old Town Square) and the nightlife is a blast since there’s a good number of colleges in the area. Highlights of Krakow include singing alongside Poles (who loved Evanescence-type songs) at a karaoke bar and clubbing with a bachelor party where the groomsmen were dressed as doctors and the groom-to-be was a scantily clad nurse. 

Denmark

Yes, I realize I haven’t written a lot about things I’ve done here in Denmark since the first few weeks after I arrived. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything here. Living in Copenhagen has become more or less normal and that’s why I’ve been devoting this blog to all the new and unique places I’ve visited.

But as the semester winds down, I have done my very best to do as much as I can here in the great country of Denmark before we sadly have to part ways. Here are some of my favorite memories of the past few weeks:

  • Rock climbed on the Swedish coast, took a canal cruise with drag queens as the waitresses, and went to six different bars–all in one day/night! 
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  • Spent May 1st (also called “May Day” or “International Workers Day”) in Fælledparken, a giant park where people get drunk and have a good time all day and all night. I only got to celebrate May Day for an hour, but it was certainly an experience. Also saw The Avengers this day…before any of you in the U.S. did. 
 
  • Sang with my choir at a closed prison and later that week, visited that same prison with my criminology class where we got to speak to a murderer and former drug addict. Both experiences definitely changed my perspective on criminals and the Danish corrections system. Again, talk to me in person if you want to know more. I could go on for days about this.
 
  • Presented a campaign plan to a real Danish client for a real Danish organization, the culmination of an entire semester in “Communication and Campaign Management” class. Though it was a group project, it was easily the best presentation I’ve ever given and the strongest product I’ve helped produce for a class in a long, long time. 
 
  • Spent a day at the oldest amusement park in the world. Though Tivoli Gardens remains the most popular amusement park in Copenhagen, Dyrehavsbakken (which translates to “The Deer Park Hill”) is definitely worth checking out. Unlike Tivoli, you only have to pay for rides here but it’s still pretty pricey to get an all-rides pass. There are five roller coasters, which is nothing compared to U.S. theme parks, but their short wait time is a huge plus. Aside from the rides, the highlight of the day was freaking out Danes with our descriptions of the intense U.S. roller coasters like Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure.
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  • Said goodbye to my “Justice and Human Rights” core course…and what better way to do it than with a Bosnian buffet? Aside from the heavenly food with which I stuffed my face for hours, this night was one of my favorite of the semester for several reasons. First, it was one of our professors’ birthdays so we sang and gave gifts and all that. The equivalent of a Bosnian mariachi band then came to the table and played not just “Happy Birthday”, but other classics like “La Bamba”. We were then serenaded by a group of Russian female opera singers (in Russian, of course), who then joined my friend Sam in dancing in front of the entire restaurant. You can’t make this stuff up. 
 
  • Accidentally stumbled into a party of Copenhagen University economics exchange students when trying to meet up with some friends at their apartment. The econ students let us crash their party, gave us free pizza and beer, and played everything from Backstreet Boys to Outkast to “welcome the Americans”. Another typical Saturday night in Copenhagen. 
 
  • Finally took the trek up to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in northern Denmark. Louisiana is the most attended art museum in the country, and for good reason. It’s got great exhibits, even for people like me who don’t truly appreciate modern art because of how weird/hysterical it is. What’s even better is the amount of outdoor space the museum occupies. It’s right on the water; on a nice day, there’s no nicer place to relax and enjoy the rare thing we call the sun. 
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Okay, so I lied about this being brief. But so much has been happening here and I want to write it all down so that even if no one reads this, I still have a way to remember all of it. I’m still in denial about the fact that I’ll be returning back to the States in a few short weeks, but in the meantime, I just need to get through the struggle called finals week. Study abroad has been a lot harder than I thought it would be, but at this point, I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had for the world. 
 
Stay tuned for one final post this week before I embark on Eurotrip #2. Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Florence, Barcelona, here I come!
 
 

An Aquatic Labyrinth and a Shopping Mall

If I had to pick one word to describe Venice, it would be CHAOTIC.

For starters, it’s the most confusing city I’ve ever visited. The big streets with the canals are connected by a maze of tiny alleyways without street signs that are constantly congested and overwhelming. I have a pretty poor sense of direction to begin with, and it didn’t help being in a place where I could have sworn everything moves around, Hogwarts-style. To make things even more complicated, we were forced to take the ferries to get from Venice to our hostel, which are not clearly labeled or priced at all. 

Now, the reason we needed to take a boat to our hostel was because we stayed on an island called Fusina, giving us a new addition to our list of crazy places we’ve slept during our trip. I thought Camping Fusina, which was strangely reminiscent of the island in the Scooby-Doo movie, was a nice place to stay despite the inconvenience. To future travelers, pay attention to the “location” rating when you’re picking a hostel–unless you don’t mind running around looking for ferries, waiting hours for said ferry, and paying out the ass because the system makes no sense. 

But back to the actual city. Due to poor luck and timing, Dylan and I spent most of our time in Venice lugging our bugs around in the rain, which for me, made an unimpressive city a whole lot worse. The aforementioned chaos, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the dilapidated buildings–it didn’t do it for me. I was also disappointed with the food; perhaps it was the particular restaurants we went to, but I had nothing close to the incredible Italian meals I’ve been hearing about. The one thing that did live up to hype, however, was the gelato. The things I would do for more…

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I kid you not, some prostitutes cost less than a gondola ride.

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Baskin-Robbins, this ain't.

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Check out that form

That’s all I really have to say about Venice. To be fair, we didn’t do much here except walk around and take pictures. I was pretty glad to leave, but once I split up with Dylan and went to Milan, I would’ve gone back to Venice in a heartbeat. 

If I had to pick one word to describe how I felt about Milan, it would be UGLY.

Again, my perception of the city may be tainted by the fact that I spent my time here carrying around all my luggage in miserable weather. But I found Milan gross and uninviting nonetheless. It’s essentially a shopping mall for the elite, with Gucci, Prada, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the like on every block. But for such a wealthy, hoity-toity city, it’s drab and depressing…the qualities you want in an Elliot Smith song, but not a city. 

The only interesting thing I saw there was the Duomo, which I’m sure you smart readers know, is simply a word for cathedral. I’ll admit, it was pretty damn impressive and it’s the only thing that made Milan somewhat worthwhile. But even if you find a diamond in a pile of shit, you’re still standing in a pile of shit. 

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And just like that, the trip was over. After taking a bus to the airport, attempting (and failing) to sleep in the frigid airport, finding friends and hanging out all night, boarding the plane, fearing a man was going to die next to me, and trying not to smell the vomit of the woman in front of me, I was back in Copenhagen. 

 

I suppose now, I have to give you my profound reflections about traveling and seeing the world and how enriched as I am as an individual. While I can’t promise anything groundbreaking, here are some of my big takeaways and lessons learned from this experience:

  • I am capable of (and actually enjoy) planning long, ambitious trips.
  • Cultures are different, but people are more or less the same.
  • The world is small…especially when all of your classmates go traveling through Europe at the same time. 
  • I am fairly decent at picking up languages and should definitely work on becoming fluent in at least one. If nearly everyone I talked to under the age of 30 could have a casual conversation with me in English, I should be able to do the same in another language. 
  • Don’t spend more money than you need to just because a country’s prices are cheap. #prague #budapest
  • Variety is the key to enjoying traveling. What’s the point of going somewhere new if you don’t do anything new? Make sure to go to the bars, but also the museums. Spend time walking around but also sitting down and relaxing. Take planes, but also do buses and trains to see the areas you wouldn’t normally get to see. 
  • I enjoy alone time a lot more than I thought I did, and I want to try traveling alone sometime in the future.
  • Traveling never has to end. I met a family who had been traveling for 7 months straight (and had hit every continent but Africa and Antarctica), an elderly couple biking around Europe, and plenty of others who had been around the world and had no intentions of stopping. 
  • If you obtain an injury from an embarrassing accident, tell people you got in a fight. 

Thanks for reading the novel I’ve posted this past week (that is, if anyone actually did). Stay tuned for future posts about my last month in Copenhagen, Paris, Poland, and whatever other shenanigans I get myself into. 

All You Need is sLOVE(nia)

If I had to pick one word to describe how I felt about Ljubljana, it would be SURPRISING.

You might be asking yourself, “Why the hell did these clowns decide to go Slovenia in the first place? I wish I could offer a legitimate reason, like a deep secret love for Slovenian culture. The truth is, when researching places to see, Dylan and I couldn’t stop laughing at the name of the capital, Ljubljana. While the real pronunciation is something along the lines of “lee-yoob-lee-ahn-ahh”, the two of us spent a half hour upon reading the name screaming “LA-JOOB-AHH-LA-JOHN-AHH!!!” 

So that’s how we ended up in Slovenia, a country which a waitress informed us is the only country with the word “love” in the title. I didn’t have too many preconceived notions going in, but everything we saw in the one full day we spent there completely shattered my expectations. 

For starters, the locals’ English was much better than expected. Although Slovenia is much more advanced than a country like Bosnia and its Balkan neighbors, I operated under the naive assumption that Slovenia wasn’t as “advanced” as other European countries. I was proven wrong again in an exhibit on Slovenian history; after the country gained independence in 1991 following the breakup of Yugoslavia, it managed to quickly establish itself as a modern nation to join the EU and NATO in 2004 and switching over to the Euro in 2007. In 13 years (a short amount of time when it comes to international politics), this small country somehow went from drafting a brand-new constitution to joining Europe’s most elite club. Slovenia…a true underdog story.

I was also surprised at the actual city of Ljubljana. It’s simultaneously quaint and majestic…at least, as majestic as a city with a small village atmosphere can be. I expected to walk around, say “Oh, that’s neat”, and snap a few pictures, but nothing prepared me for the Ljubljana Castle. Like most castles, you have to climb a hellish hill to get to it but once you do, you get a spectacular view of the entire city unrivaled by most. If I had to give award for Best View, Ljubljana would take the prize.

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Another shocker of Ljubljana can be found in a neighborhood in the northeast of the city called Metelkova. Formerly a military barrack, the area has now turned into something of a hippie town. It was somewhat similar to Christiania in Copenhagen, but less isolated and without people selling drugs on the street. I would have never expected a place like this to be here, but as a fan of weird street art, I could have spent hours here. 

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What other surprises did Slovenia have in store? One was elaborate and high-tech waste/recycling receptacles that most places in the U.S. don’t even have. Another was the relatively cheap prices; despite using the Euro, I didn’t have a heart attack every time I paid for food here. The most pleasant surprise was the quality of the food  along with the fact that for the first time in Europe, I could get free water and bread at any restaurant. Overall, the biggest surprise was that a place like this even exists and that I might have completely missed it. My time in Ljubljana has taught me that (a) the road less traveled is sometimes worth taking and (b) going to a place because you think the name is funny can lead to fantastic results. 

Hungary for More

If I had to pick one word to describe how I felt about Budapest, it would be AWESOME.

Now, I don’t mean the type of “awesome” used in sentences like “Dude, that motorcross trick was awesome!” or “Thomas Cheng is the most awesome person in the world” or “Did you have an awesome time? Did you drink awesome shooters, listen to awesome music, and then just sit around and soak up each other’s awesomeness?”

No, the “awesome” I’m referring to is more along the lines of the dictionary definition of the word–“characterized by [an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc. produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like]”. The fear part isn’t too relevant; the only time I felt scared was looking at the beds in the sketchy apartment building that had been haphazardly turned into a hostel. Everything else in the definition is relevant though. Budapest, my newfound obsession, contains jaw-dropping sights and attractions everywhere you go. Lots of cities have beautiful buildings and scenery; not only does Budapest rank highly in these categories, it also tops the list when it comes to some more unconventional things such as bars and bath houses. Here are a few reasons why Budapest became my favorite city of my trip:

1. The Sights

Budapest is a city of two halves. On the flat side, you have the more residential area of Pest, which contains many impressive locations, such as St. Stephan’s Basilica, Parliament, the Heroes Square, the last remaining Soviet Memorial, etc. Cross the Chain Bridge and you have the more hilly Buda side which is even more beautiful and gives you the most breathtaking views of the Pest side and the surrounding mountains. If I had to choose a favorite side, I’d go with Buda, but it’s honestly like picking your favorite child (assuming you actually like your children).

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St. Stephan's Basilica, pre-jumping picture photoshoot

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The only purple Parliament I've ever seen

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Heroes Square, one of my favorite climb-able monuments

What’s nice about Budapest is that for such a small city, everything is spread apart. This means that no one area is ever too crowded and that you actually have room to breathe. Even though Budapest is starting to attract more tourists, it doesn’t feel packed or congested at all. The city also contains lots of open spaces, trees, plants, parks, and playgrounds, which add to the laid-back environment I’m realizing I love.

2. The House of Terror

Although the name makes it sounds like a straight-to-DVD horror movie, the House of Terror is actually a museum and memorial to Hungarian citizens who lost their lives to communist and fascist regimes. It’s not an easy on the emotions; the first thing you see when you walk inside is a giant tank in front of a wall, covered in thousands (I counted at least 1,200) of victims’ faces. Walking through and reading about the atrocities committed, I felt a great sense of admiration and respect for the people brave enough to speak out against injustice, including my grandmother who spent ten years in a labor camp for rebelling against Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Makes me wonder, will I ever be able courageous to follow in her footsteps?

Once you make it to the basement, the museum gets even heavier. Since the House was used as the Nazi headquarters (who were not the nicest people), you can still see prisoners’ cells, interrogation rooms, and even torture instruments. The eerieness is amplified by the museum’s expert use of lighting and music; the House of Terror is one of the most effective museums I’ve seen when it comes to setting a mood/atmosphere. Since at this point I still had images of my grandmother covered in sweat, blisters, and blood in the hot Chinese sun, all I could think about here was how upsetting it is to think that horrifying things like this are happening around the world today.

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ImageOne of the most thought-provoking and well put-together museums I’ve been to. Plus, THEY HAVE WATER FOUNTAINS!!!

3. The Thermal Bath
Once upon a time, someone found natural hot springs in Budapest and decided to build a bath house around it. I didn’t get a chance to take any pictures here, but imagine both indoor and outdoor pools and saunas in an ornate building that couldn’t be more eastern European if it tried. Now imagine that the water is the perfect level of warm. I don’t believe the stories about the water’s magical healing powers since my eye was still black as night afterwards, but for the rest of the day, I had a smile as big as Carlton Banks’ during the Carlton dance.
4. The Food/Prices
You know that feeling you get when you’re eating a meal that’s either really cheap or free and no matter what you’re eating it tastes like a gourmet restaurant? I’m pretty sure that’s what happened for me in Budapest. The conversion between the Hungarian forint (Hungary’s currency) and the US dollar is about 226 to 1, which (a) is a really hard number to divide by and (b) makes everything ridiculously cheap. You know you’re starting to get spoiled when you start debating whether you want to shell out the equivalent of $2.50 for a beer.
But even if the prices were high, it would have been worth it for the delicious meals we stumbled across. Apparently, Hungary is not well known for their cuisine, but we must have gotten lucky with the restaurants we chose. While I was disappointed with the goulash in Prague, the Hungarian stew was a rave for my taste buds. The fact that I ordered the goulash, garlic bread, chicken, and multiple drinks (which confirmed our waitresses’ beliefs that Americans are gluttonous garbage disposals) for a little over $10 was enough reason for me to return to Budapest in the future.
On a completely unrelated note, we managed to find a Chipotle-style burrito joint (with free soda refills!) that was a nice taste of home. So much for not being a tourist.
5. The Ruin Pubs
I honestly can’t describe the ruin pubs in words in a way that can do them justice. Most of them are large abandoned buildings that have been turned into funky bars with vegetation, graffiti, bathtubs, bikes, cars, and everything in between. Most have an outdoor seating area, where you can enjoy a drink or slice of pizza (yes, they sell pizza in the actual bar) under the stars.
One of the ruin pubs we went to (whose name I don’t know) was near-empty, save for a handful of Hungarian hipsters whose “dancing” could be best described as rigid gyrations that even robots would consider awkward. We quickly moved beyond the robot corner to the back room to find a group of older Hungarian men playing ping-pong, which of course we had to join. I didn’t use my camera much at this pub, which is unfortunate because I would have loved to document some of the ping-pong and the hipster tribal dance.
I did take a ton of pictures at Szimpla Pub, which is undoubtedly the best of the best. Take a look for yourself (although I don’t even think my photos can do it justice):
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6. Sorozo Pub/The Green Beer
Continuing our streak of randomly finding awesome things in Hungary, we somehow ended up in a bar called Sorozo Pub next to our hostel that was all locals. The place had been packed all day and didn’t look like it was dying down anytime soon, so we decided to have a look and see what all the fuss was about. This was no normal bar; instead of normal tables, they had long cafeteria-style tables which made it much easier to meet and talk to new people. And while they had the usual drinks, we soon found out that they served green beer, fittingly called “Shrek Beer”.
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The beer was approximately $1.50, so you bet we returned to Sorozo a couple more times before we left. During the hours we spent there, we met an interesting group of individuals. You had your usual drunk guy ranting about politics and your usual drunk guy asking you for weed for ten straight minutes even after you’ve told him you don’t have anything. We finally met a normal guy though, and proceeded to have an absolutely abnormal conversation about Jewish day camps, prostitution, the exploitation of women, and relationships. Somehow, I, of all people, ended up consoling him about how it’s fine that he hasn’t settled down at 24. I’m going to tell myself that I changed his life and offered him a fresh outlook on life, but I’m not sure he remembers any of the conversation. Oh well.
No matter what definition you use, Budapest was unbelievably awesome. I will hopefully be back in the near future, because as the title of this post so eloquently states, I am desperately hungary for more.

White Easter

If I had to pick one word to describe how I felt about Vienna, it would be CHARMING.

This charm was most obvious at the Schönbrunn Palace, which Wikipedia tells me is a “former imperial 1,411-room Rococo summer residence”. It’s one of Vienna’s most notable landmarks; the palace is surrounded by seemingly never-ending gardens, parks, and statues. Dylan and I, along with my friend Matt who we picked up on the road, spent most of Easter Sunday at Schönbrunn which is surprisingly serene for a place that’s always crowded. Jesus Christ himself must have been inside the palace considering how long the line was; we decided to walk around instead.

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As you can tell from the pictures, the weather wasn’t too great that day. To make things even better, it started SNOWING. On EASTER. In APRIL. As much as it sucked to be shivering during spring break, I will say that it added to the cozy atmosphere. The snow, along with the extensive market in front of the palace, reminded me of Christmas…despite the fact that we were in the wrong season. After a while, the cold didn’t bother me (I am completely convinced I am a mutant who feels temperature differently from most people anyways) and I became enamored with the pretzels, stilts, Easter eggs, live music, the whole shebang. I don’t know if any Easter can be better than participating in the Easter Egg hunt on the White House lawn, but this comes pretty damn close.

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Aside from this, we didn’t see too many other things I’d consider distinctly Austrian. Yes, we saw Parliament and the Mozart/Beethoven houses and such, but it was in Vienna when I realized that so much of so many big cities are interchangeable. We did get a chance, however, to see St. Peter’s Church (geez Europe, come up with some original names!). I’ve seen approximately 5 million churches in the past 3 months, but this was one of the most impressive and memorable.

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Aside from strolling around the city, we didn’t too much else. We did spend a few hours at the Mumak Museum of Modern Art, which I didn’t find particularly special or interesting, save for some neat pop art exhibits and a dark room with two videos of a woman talking to herself from one end of the room to the other. We mostly wandered aimlessly through the many markets of Vienna, which I truly believe give the city its distinct charm. You can’t be sad after drinking a glass of hot wine and watching adorable old people dance. It’s impossible. 

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I saw a lot of comparisons between Vienna and Berlin; the large size (although Berlin is nearly twice the size of Vienna), the language, the mix of regal older buildings with the more modern ones, the open spaces, the abundance of green everywhere, etc. Both cities run very smoothly and efficiently as well, unlike certain other places in Europe. Vienna’s public transportation system was one of the easiest, cleanest, and fastest ones I’ve used, and our hostel was by far the most professional and organized (plus they had free breakfast!). 

Despite all this, I still left Vienna a tad underwhelmed. Maybe it had to do with my mental image of Austria (the hills and mountains Julie Andrews goes on HAM on in The Sound of Music) and that clearly wasn’t Vienna. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t get a chance to learn much about the place; while walking around and taking pictures is enjoyable, I don’t find it as fulfilling as actually learning something about the country you’re visiting. Maybe it was because we didn’t get to meet any locals here. Honestly, I think it had to do with the short amount of time we had in Vienna. I wish we had been able to stay for longer; we didn’t get to see the Treasury, the Ferris Wheel, the Jewish area/museum, or one of the classical music concerts where the performers dress up in 18th century clothing. The awful weather that can be only explained by the gods getting belligerently drunk and tormenting us humans for fun didn’t help either. 

But am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go back? Most likely (I’d try to return around Easter time again). Would I ever go back to Austria so I can spin on a mountain and scream Sound of Music at the top of my lungs? Absolutely. 

Czech Mates

If I had to pick one word to describe how I felt about Prague, it would be BEAUTIFUL.

Let me clarify. Although most of the cities I visited had incredible sights and scenery, I was immediately struck by the grandness and magnificence of every inch (I’m sorry…centimeter) of Prague. Yes, the tourist-covered areas like the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle are stunning to look at, but even the less crowded neighborhoods are a feast for the eyes. 

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My adventure in the Czech Republic began when Dylan and I took another 15-hour train ride from Amsterdam, which thankfully was less torturous than the first one. I somehow managed to find an empty bed again and with the help of some friendly Germans, managed to get away with sleeping there without a ticket. After arriving, we dragged our luggage up a trillion hills through southeast Prague and arrived at our hostel, a place called Clown and Bard. This was definitely the most communal of the hostels we stayed at; a smokey hole-in-the-wall with a bar next to the reception where the staff hangs out and plays dice games with the guests every night. Dylan and I actually spent most of our nights hanging out with Greg, an American who’d worked at Clown and Bard since 1999. He was also a back-up singer for one of the famous singers in the Czech Republic and lived next to the Osbournes in Spain for a couple months. To say he was an interesting guy would be an understatement.

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But back to Prague. We started out by cutting through the massive Old Town Square to get the Jewish Town, one of the most vibrant and historically rich Jewish communities in Europe. Hitler wanted to preserve the area to turn it into a “museum of the dead”, but the Czech Jews have made it so much more. We bought a pass that gave us access to all of the synagogues (which we couldn’t take pictures of) and the Jewish cemetery. They were stunning examples of how beautiful a place can be despite all the tragedy that surrounds it, and you can see the spirit and resilience of the community. The cemetery, in particular, was shockingly aesthetically pleasing considering the fact that it contains 2,000 tombstones and 10,000 bodies. 

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We spent the rest of the day seeing the main hotspots, and while I could fill novels with cool things we saw, my favorite site was the Lennon Wall. Previously a normal wall, it has since become a graffiti-covered landmark after John Lennon’s death in 1980. Although people started off with Beatles-related lyrics and pictures, it now contains everything from signatures to “YOLO”.

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Some DIS friends I picked up along the way.

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Once the sun set and we started buying dinner and drinks, we were pleasantly surprised to see how inexpensive (apparently the Czechs don’t like calling their country “cheap”) everything was, at least compared to the US/Denmark. The conversion rate is approximately 18 Czech Koruna to 1 US dollar and if you’re anywhere but downtown, you can get a large meal with a beer (the best one being Gambrinus) for under 10 US dollars. One restaurant we went to even had entrees for 4 dollars! 

On day two, I met up with some of my DIS friends who were in Prague for the day through a school trip. I tagged along to their walking tour, which was a bit miserable due to the rain, wind, and my decision to wear shorts (note to self: ALWAYS check the weather in the morning). I did learn some interesting facts, like the fact that only 5% of the Czech population is religious, despite the fact that there are churches on every street corner. I also got to finally climb the enormous hill (seriously, touring this city was my workout of the year) to the Prague Castle that allowed me to see the view of the entire city, despite the grayness and grossness of the day. 

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That night, I took a cab up to a neighborhood in northeast Prague to visit my friends from school, James and Molly. Accompanied by some of their…interesting…friends, we took a tram back to the neighborhood my hostel was in to find a club called Bunker, which James described, and I’m paraphrasing, a “dubstep cave”. He mentioned it was a bit hidden and underground, but when we finally arrived at a giant rock covered with graffiti in the middle of a park and he announced that this was the infamous Bunker, I immediately understood what he meant. Unfortunately, it was closed so we headed a more swankier place called Akropolis. By “swankier”, I mean that this place (a) was an actual building and (b) displayed its name on the front. The place wasn’t too fancy and was rather empty, most likely because we were in a more residential area that probably doesn’t share our love for Thirsty Thursdays.

Everything was fine and good until I managed to end up in a fight with four guys who were all twice my size. At least, that’s one of many stories I’ve been telling people about how I ended up with a black eye that still hasn’t completely healed, nearly two weeks after I got it. What really happened was that as I left the bathroom and attempted to find my way back to where my friends were sitting, I turned a sharp corner and ran headfirst into a wall. You can’t see it too well with my glasses and the poor quality of my camera, but my left eye was basically closed for the next few days. As much as it sucked looking like a mugging victim in the rest of my trip pictures, I know that worse things could have happened and I’m glad they didn’t. Also, I’ve had fun emulating the Joker and telling a different story to everyone after growling “You want to know I got these scars?” 

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You know you’re in a great city when you have a fantastic time, despite atrocious weather and an embarrassing injury. I rank it as my third favorite location of my trip; the only reason it’s not closer to the top is because of how congested the touristy areas are. I would absolutely go back though…hopefully at a time when I can see the beautiful city with both of my eyes instead of just one.