Give Me the Red Light…

And so begins the barrage of travel-related blog posts…

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

If you haven’t been to Amsterdam before, some parts of the city are exactly what you imagine it to be. Namely, weed and prostitutes. In fact, I had the most fun in Amsterdam in the Red Light District, where my roommate Andrew and I did some unmentionables that would compromise my blog’s PG rating if I typed them up. However, the city is much more than a giant Spencer’s. It’s beautiful, relaxed, and contains a ton of cool history and culture that’s tragically overlooked. 

My adventures in the Netherlands started when my friend Dylan and I finally arrived after a 15-hour overnight train ride from Copenhagen. The journey was made miserable by an army of small children who must have been on speed, but after sneaking off to an empty bed, the rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We quickly found our hostel, aptly titled Youth Hostel Meetingpoint, and dropped our bags off in our 18-bed room before setting off to see the sights.

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Unsurprisingly, the city was packed with tourists, even for a Monday and Tuesday. I also expected the abundance of marijuana and sex paraphernalia, along with the houseboats and elaborate canals I remembered from my last brief trip here in 2006. There were a few things, however, I was immediately taken aback by. I knew Amsterdam was one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, but I didn’t how bike-obsessed the Dutch are. The Danes love to bike in Copenhagen, but there aren’t PARKING GARAGES JUST FOR BIKES. I was also surprised that the Red Light District was simply a street in the middle of the city, when I expected it to be more of a closed-off, isolated community. The Red Light District is open 24/7 by the way; it was a little jarring seeing the prostitutes in their glass cases during the daytime.

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After a photoshoot on the “I Amsterdam” sign, Dylan and I went to the Van Gogh Museum and the FOAM (International Photography Museum). We couldn’t take pictures at either, which was a shame since there were photo-worthy exhibits around every corner. FOAM was dedicated to photojournalism, and had exhibits on 9/11, the progression of Times Square, movie stars, Olympic athletes, etc. As for Van Gogh,  I didn’t know much (or anything) about him before, but I was astounded reading about this guy’s life. Did you know that he didn’t have any artistic experience as a child, and just decided to become an artist during adulthood? WHO DOES THAT?

That night, Dylan and I met up with Andrew and set off to see if the nightlife lived up to the hype. While we mostly stayed in low-key, casual bars, we did meet our fair share of characters. My favorite person from the night was a sassy English bartender named Anna; when she asked us a grammar question and we sided with her friend instead of her, she pretended to be furious and gave us shit for the rest of the night. Her friend ended up buying us free jaeger, so the moral of the story is: knowing grammar can lead you to free booze. Stay in school, kids. 

The next morning, Dylan and I waited in line for an hour to see the Anne Frank house, which I had read about since sixth grade. We couldn’t take pictures here either, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the power of the house with my crappy point-and-shoot. I was moved by the persistence and resilience of the family (along with Otto Frank, who had to live for decades after World War II after all his family and friends had died) and the power of the written word. It blew my mind to think that thousands of people come to this site every year solely because a teenage girl decided to write about her life. The simplest things truly can be the most beautiful. 

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To wrap up my time in Amsterdam, I decided to rent a bike and ride around the city for a couple hours. After a bit of confusion and almost being hit by cars, I got the hang of the ridiculously easy bike routes and saw almost the entire city (which is only 85 square miles) in two and a half hours. I can now cross “biking in a city” off my bucket list…along with some of the unmentionables I wrote about in the beginning of this post. 

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Overall, Amsterdam was a blast but I’m definitely not in a rush to come back anytime soon. I would like to see other areas of the Netherlands, especially since I didn’t get to see windmills or the “real Netherlands”. I  also left with a lot of questions about the ethics of prostitution and the exploitation of women (a topic which also came up in Budapest), which could fill ten blog posts if I actually managed to organize my thoughts. Again, it’s one of the best cities to visit if you want to have fun, but it definitely wasn’t one of the highs of my trip. Pun intended. 

SPRING BREAK WOO

It’s finally here. After weeks of researching, planning, and pulling my hair out, the eagerly anticipated spring break has arrived. Starting Sunday, I will be hopping through Europe for 15 days with a Eurail global pass, and I couldn’t be more excited. As much as I would like to be in control of every little detail, a lot of the trip is still up in the air at this point, so who knows what the hell is going to happen?

Here is my spring break, by the numbers.

Countries: 6

Cities: 7

Hostels: 6

Currencies: 3

Official Languages: 7

Plane Rides: 1

Train Rides: 7

Hours Spent on Planes (approximately): 2.5

Hours Spent on Trains (approximately): 54

Hostel Roommates: 52

Amount of Money I Expect to Have at the End: 0

Number of Regrets I Expect to Have at the End: 0

See you in mid-April!

In the Land of Guinness and Leprechauns

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too impressed with Dublin when I first walked into the city center this past Friday. Maybe it was the gray mist that lingered over the sky and ruined all of my pictures of Trinity College (where I stayed with my friend Sarah). Maybe it was the fact that there wasn’t much striking architecture. Maybe it was that I stupidly assumed I’d be seeing the scenic sights I’d come to associate with Ireland…despite the fact that I spent the majority of my time in a city. Whatever it was, I spent my first few hours there having an enjoyable time while simultaneously wondering if I could have picked a better place to visit.

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Arguably one of the most famous libraries in the world.

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Trinity College belltower

However, as the day progressed and the sun came out, I began seeing the charm of Ireland. For starters, the Irish are some of the nicest people I have ever met. They always have a smile on their face and are always willing to help confused tourists; I heard stories about Irish people walking foreigners to their destinations, paying for their cabs, donating their kidneys, etc. The last one might be a slight exaggeration, but I swear there must be some happiness-inducing drug in the water (also an exaggeration). Another great thing about Ireland is the music. And I’m not referring to the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. I’m talking about the live bands that entertain drunk pubgoers by mixing traditional songs with American classics like “Lose Yourself” and “Cotton Eye Joe”. While I was at a pub called O’Neills on Friday, I realized the appeal of Ireland isn’t in flashy sights or touristy hotspots, but in the friendly, jovial atmosphere that’s so unique to this country. 

Unlike Berlin, I didn’t go to any museums or do much that could be considered “educational”. Here are some of the highlights of my weekend in Dublin:

-Toured the Guinness storehouse and took a tutorial on how to pour the perfect pint. Of course, I managed to mess it up, but the beer still tasted great. I now have crazy respect for the insane amount of discipline and dedication it takes to brew something so complex as Guinness, especially since I have the patience of a three-year-old. 

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-Managed to remember enough of my middle/high school French to interact with a group of kids who decided to speak to me in French, despite the fact that I look as French as a quesadilla. Madame Wu would be proud. 

-Took a haunted bus tour, full of demon pigs, graveyards, and creepy men in makeup and masks telling us scary stories. At one point, one of the tour guides challenged us to walk around a church three times, which would supposedly cause the devil to come out. As you can probably guess, I did it. Nothing happened, although I swear there is a demon in one of the DIS buildings trying to eat me. If I turn up dead soon, take a lesson from me and DON’T walk around any Irish church more than twice. 

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-Spent a couple hours on Sunday in a coastal town called Howth. My friend Sarah told me it looks exactly like Cape Cod, which means I need to go to Cape Cod as soon as possible. To be perfectly honest, all I did there was eat and walk alongside the water, which in my mind is a perfect day. 

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-Partied with dozens of international students studying at Trinity, to celebrate someone named Eric’s 28th birthday. Although I essentially had the same conversation with everyone I met there (“What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “What are you studying?”, “Who do you think the first person to puke will be?”), it was fun to meet people from every corner of the world and to realize everyone loves Emma Stone as much as I do. 

-Took a picture with a leprechaun! At least, a man dressed as one:

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My weekend in Ireland was a pleasant one, but will I ever come back? Probably not, at least in the near future. Maybe I’ll return to see Galway or Belfast or a town/island that’s more off the beaten path. Maybe I’ll return to learn more about Ireland’s tumultuous history, which I’m ashamed to say I don’t know more about. The most likely scenario, however, is that I return to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It sounds shallow, but I can’t imagine anything better than celebrating one of the happiest holidays of the year in one of the happiest places on earth. 

In the Land of Pretzels and Currywurst

Guten tag! As part of my newfound quest to step foot on every inch (I’m sorry, centimeter) of Europe, I traveled with 3 DIS friends to Berlin this past weekend to see if all the hype was true.

Now, the trip started smoothly. We boarded a plane in Copenhagen at 8:30 pm and landed in Germany at approximately 9:15. Since the first leg of our journey was so easy and stress-free, Murphy’s Law obviously meant that we struggled BIG TIME on the second part. See, Berlin is much bigger than Copenhagen,  Washington D.C., and some of the other cities I’ve used public transportation in recently. This means that there’s a lot more stops, trains, platforms, routes, etc. It became a fairly easy system once we got the hang of it, but the first night we were there, the trains all decided to go berserk and switch directions at every moment they could. The trip from the airport to the hostel, which was supposed to take an hour, ended up taking a little over two. Our complete inability to understand the rebellion of the trains, along with the drunk English man puking next to us, did not make for a pleasant journey.

Once we finally made it, however, everything was smooth sailing. The highlight of Saturday was definitely the free 3-hour walking tour around the city, where we got to see most of the main sites: 

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Chilling with the bear at the Brandenburg Gate

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Berliner Dom

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

A couple things struck me about Berlin:

-I was extremely impressed with the way the city combines the historical and modern. Yes, it’s one of the first things everyone says about Berlin, but I was fascinated with how one can see buildings like the Berliner Dom (pictured above) next to so many things that look like they’re brand new (which they probably are). I also loved all the “greenness” and open spaces; despite the fact that it’s one of the largest and most populous cities in Europe, I was the most relaxed and comfortable I’ve been in a while. 

-The memorials here are…rather interesting. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (pictured above) is simply rows upon rows of stone gray rectangles, 2,711 to be exact. You can’t see it from the outside, but once you venture into the stones, you notice that the ground is fairly hilly. This, added with the different sizes of the blocks, creates a pretty discomforting experience. Our tour guide told us that this memorial, along with ones at the Jewish Museum and another dedicated to burned books, is intentionally ambiguous, in order to make people think harder and truly reflect upon what they’re seeing and experiencing. Whether you think these memorials have actual depth and meaning or you just think the architects were full of shit, they definitely win points for creativity.

-From what I ate this weekend, I have to say that I am not a fan of German food (except for the currywurst). However, I was a fan of cheap everything was–at least compared to Copenhagen. Then again, you can probably buy human organs in some countries for less than a nice meal in Denmark.

-As much as I loved our walking tour, the East Side Gallery was hands down my favorite thing from the entire trip. It’s a 1.3 km section of the Berlin Wall completely covered in graffiti, with 105 paintings from artists whose names I’m not even going to attempt to spell/pronounce. To be honest, I don’t know the meaning or backstory behind a lot of these pictures, but I absolutely wanted to drop all my career plans and become a street artist while looking at them. If only I had a shred of artistic talent…

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Was the hype warranted? Absolutely. I could see myself living here someday…just as long as I find good foreign restaurants or learn to how cook non-beginner foods. 

In the Land of Blood and Honey

Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It’s a country few people can place on a map, much less pronounce. It’s a country with a complex history and an even more complicated future. Many remain completely unaware that a devastating war occurred there only 20 years ago that took the lives of tens of thousands of people. I had the privilege of spending this past week in “the land of blood and honey” with my international law class, in what became one of the most eye-opening and inspiring experiences of my life.

Here is my feeble attempt at summarizing thousands of years of history and conflict into one paragraph. The Bosnian War began after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and although the fighting was mainly over territory, the conflict was also fueled by ethnic and religious divisions between Serbs, Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks. The war, which took place from 1992 to 1995, was fought between the Serbian Army of Republika Srpska and the mostly Bosniak Army of the Republic of BiH/Croatian Defense Council on the other side. There were countless instances of ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and genocide; despite the fact that mostly Serbs have been placed on trial and been convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity were committed by members of all groups. The most iconic event of the conflict (not to say that others were unimportant) was the massacre at Srebrenicia (a UN-safe zone) in July 1995, where over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by Serb forces, in the bloodiest event on European soil since World War II. The war finally ended in December 1995, when, after being pressured by the international community, representatives from each of the groups in BiH met in Ohio to form the Dayton Peace Agreement. This, among other things, established a rotating presidency between the three groups, established new territory and boundary lines, and gave international organizations oversight power.

Where do I begin?

The Sights

BiH is a country my friend David appropriately called “miserably beautiful”. We stayed mainly in Sarajevo (the capital), which as you can probably imagine from my above description, still needs repair despite the fact that most of the buildings have been rebuilt. Geographically, the country is quite unusual. I’ve never seen a city with so many mountains right in the city center, or graveyards for that matter. What amazed me the most in Sarajevo was the spirit and livelihood of the people, despite the fact that they have so many collective wounds that have yet to heal. Take a look at Sarajevo:

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The brown and green structure in the above picture is a fountain, which legend says, will bring anyone who drinks out of it back to Sarajevo. I had to treat myself to a sip, so guess I’m going back to Bosnia!

As much as I loved Sarajevo, it was nowhere close to how obsessed I am with Mostar. Mostar is one of the largest and most influential cities in BiH and one of the most beautiful in the world. The most famous attraction there is the Old Bridge, which was built in the 16th century and connects two parts of the city. The bridge was completely destroyed in November 1993; for 11 years afterwards, people from all over the world worked together to salvage the pieces and rebuild the bridge to make it look exactly how it did before it was bombed. Take a look at the bridge, as well as some of the other sights:

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The Visits

Since our trip was primarily academic, our days were mostly spent meeting with political and religious leaders, nonprofits, and people involved in the war in order to form a clearer and more nuanced picture of the war.

Here are some of the people/places we visited, and notes on them:

NATO Representative

International Commission on Missing Persons
This organization uses forensic analysis to identifies remains of Srebrenicia victims. As much as I enjoyed the visit and respected the ICMP’s mission, standing in a room with 200 body bags definitely made my skin crawl.

EU Representative

Religious Leaders
Although the three religious leaders all had vastly different ideologies, I was surprised by how similar their beliefs were. They all spoke about the inefficiency of government and the need for dialogue and peace initiatives. Each of them also mentioned how the war, despite all of the atrocities, seemed to increase faith in their respective communities.

Mayor of Tuzla

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
Being a media nerd, this was probably my favorite visit. The BIRN covers and reports on war crimes cases using a multi-media approach to reach a wide audience. Apparently, the media in BiH is just as ineffective as the government and all of the major news outlets are owned and controlled by political parties.

Nansen Dialogue Center

Srebrenicia

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It’s easy to become desensitized to memorials. As sad as it is, since we’ve read and heard about so many genocides and human tragedies, it’s very easy to brush off another story. I did fear that this was going to happen to me at Srebrenicia, and boy was I wrong.

The graveyard and the wall listing all of the names of victims was already sad beyond belief. However, the indoor memorial was even more heartbreaking. There were detailed personal stories about the horrid suffering people encountered and the beautiful sacrifices people made. Afterwards, we watched a documentary and spoke to two mothers who had lost all the males in their family at Srebrenicia. There was not a single dry eye in that room.

As depressing as this visit was, it’s experiences like these that truly highlight the strength and resilience of humanity. To watch these two women describe how they have hope for the future, despite the monstrosities they’d been through, was absolutely inspiring. To bring back an earlier phrase, everything here truly is miserably beautiful.

The Food

I can’t write about BiH without mentioning the food. Bosnians love meat more than anything, which means I was in heaven all six days. Not to mention, everything was dirt cheap so I could get a hearty, three-course meal for $10. Did I mention how much meat they eat? It’s a wonder there’s no constipation pandemic.

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All in all, this was one of the most informative and fun trips I’ve ever taken. If you’re ever in eastern Europe or are looking for an unconventional vacation spot, I would strongly consider Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sh*t Danes Say: Part 1

Although Danish people speak English, it’s certainly not the same as American English. Everyone knows about some of the comical differences between American English and British English, but Danish English is its own special breed. They have this special ability to combine words into the most awkward, cringeworthy, hilarious sentences imaginable. They also become so much more ridiculous and funny when spoken with the Danish accent. So without further ado, here is the first installment of “Sh*t Danes Say”:

International law professor, on cats:

“I think it would be really cool to be a cat. The more of an asshole you are, the more people like you.”

Criminology professor, on prisoners:

“How do you think your relationship with your loved ones would be affected if you went to prison?
Maybe you don’t have any loved ones anymore. You’ve killed all of them!”

Communication professor, on being drunk:

“I was really drunk, because I was out for a friend’s birthday…getting really drunk.”

13-year-old Danish student, asking questions to a panel of visiting American students:

“Is North Korea a threat to Western society?”

“How can America have the death penalty when the US Constitution says everyone has the right to life?”

Danish bar friend, on the stupidity of US drinking laws:

“Can I vote? Yes. Can I serve in the military? Yes. Can I f*ck my girlfriend in the ass if she wants me to? Yes. Can I buy her a beer afterwards? FOR HEAVENS SAKE, NO!”

Choir friend, on dogs in Greenland:

“The only thing I had to learn to say in Greenlandic when I was living there was ‘F*CK OFF’! This one time, my brother and I were being chased by a rabid dog in the street. So we both just took off our shoes and threw them at him while screaming ‘F*CK OFF’ at it. And it worked!”

Choir director, on an upcoming party:

“We’re going to share some beers…and some laughs.”

Danish teacher’s T-shirt:

“Constant shallowness leads to evil.”

Danish bar friend, on sausage fests and Lord of the Rings:

“Sometimes, when my mates and I aren’t getting lucky at the bar because it’s a sausage fest or whatever, we just get wasted and go watch Lord of the Rings at my apartment. I know it sounds gay because of how homoerotic Frodo and Sam are with each other, but it’s the f*cking manliest thing you can do.”

Danish bar friend, on New Jersey:

“If Jersey Shore is accurate, I would rather pull a Bear Grylls and drink my own piss before ever setting foot in New Jersey.”

All These Things That I’ve Done

So, as expected, I’ve been pretty terrible at updating this.  However, since today is exactly one month since the day I arrived in Copenhagen, I figure I might as well procrastinate by telling you some stories about what I’ve been up to.

In no particular order:

  • Went to a town in Sweden called Malmø for a day. Now, I’ve been wanting to go to Sweden ever since I watched both Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, but Malmø looked nothing like the places in the movies–except for the general dreariness and horrible weather. Apparently, there’s not much to do there when it’s raining/snowing/pissing sludge on your face, but the highlight was definitely seeing the Turning Torso. 

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As you can see from the picture (which belongs to Google, not me), the building is pretty freaking tall. In fact, I couldn’t see the top because of all the mist and fog. Sadly, I could only gaze in awe at the building, because I was apparently not important enough to be allowed inside. 

Malmø’s definitely worth checking out for all the funky architecture. Here are some more cool Swedish buildings/bridges/random structures in the middle of the city:

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  • Almost got into a fight with a drunk Danish guy for calling me a “retard American”. Those Danes sure are pleasant drunks.
  • Went to a concert to see a popular Danish band called The William Blakes (http://www.myspace.com/thewilliamblakes). The venue was a place called Amager Bio, which was essentially a bigger version of the 9:30 club (for all my DC folks). Now, this band didn’t have the most danceable music, but I was taken aback with how comfortable everyone was with standing still during the show. I swear, at some points, it looked like a room full of statues.  It was still enjoyable, but I think I’ll want to choose a livelier band for the next concert I go to. 

*On a side note, LMFAO performed in Copenhagen last night. And I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but part of me regrets not going. 

  • Ate 8 eggs in an hour yesterday. Long story. Apparently it’s “unhealthy” though. 
  • Found a candy store with all the American junk food I’d been missing for the past few weeks. I even got to reunite with my best friend!

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  • Joined an international choir because (a) why the hell not?, (b) it’s a great way to meet people from all over the world and (c) I’m slightly obsessed with the director, who reminds me of a less terrifying version of Bellatrix Lestrange.
  • Partied with Danes on Fastelavn, which is essentially Denmark’s version of Halloween. What I like about Fastelavn is that people are actually creative and go all out with their costumes. Costumes did not look like this:

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In fact, they looked more like this:

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The one thing I don’t like about Fastelavn is that they don’t share the Halloween tradition of gorging oneself with 500 pounds of candy. DIS has its Fastelavn party next Sunday, so I’ll be sure to post some pictures after that. 
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I could write more, but I doubt any of you want to read about the papers I’ve been writing, the countless depressing movies I’ve been watching for European Film class, my frequent trips to the same two bars, my countless visits to the grocery store (not being able to buy in bulk is still frustrating, however “healthy” it may be), etc. 

So that’s all for now. Unless something extraordinary happens soon, my next post will probably be after my long study tour to Bosnia during the first week of March. So stay tuned!