eating together: sharing conversation and culture

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”

-Michael Pollan

I read a book about understanding literature before my first year of college, and it emphasized the importance of any event that involves characters sharing a meal. Because of the communal (as in, being in communion) aspect of eating together, and the inherent intimacy of such an act, eating together is a fundamental human interaction.

Especially while abroad, I’ve found that the very best way to enjoy the presence of friends is to prepare and enjoy a meal together!

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Felicitas and Riccarda literally breaking bread in Struppen

Food is an important aspect of culture, and what better way to share your own traditions from home with your new friends abroad? Several times, my friend Domi, from Hungary, had a group of us over to enjoy a traditional Hungarian meal that he had prepared. We listened to Hungarian music and learned some limited Hungarian. For instance, Egészségére! means Cheers!

And that is all that I know.

And that is all that I know.

In late November and early December, I celebrated Thanksgiving not once, but twice, as a way of bringing new German and international friends into our American holiday tradition and to express to them how grateful I was for their friendship! Food and fellowship are two of the main facets of the holiday, are they not?

Thanksgiving Part 1 in Dresden, hosted by Felicitas and myself

Thanksgiving Part 1 in Dresden, hosted by Felicitas and myself

Thanksgiving part 2 in Jena, hosted by our fellow American Allie

Thanksgiving Part 2 in Jena, hosted by our fellow American Allie

Of course, preparing the food is an important part of the experience. Because I’ve had the time this year, I’ve started to really love exploring new recipes and experimenting with different ingredients. And cooking with friends is even more fun!

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Cooking Thanksgiving turkey in our tiny kitchen!

Felicitas and I in Jena. We cook together on a regular basis, but just never take any pictures of our efforts...

Felicitas and me in Jena. We cook together on a regular basis, but just never take any pictures of our efforts…

A community or potluck dinner really is the perfect atmosphere, I’ve found, for getting to know new friends, because a dinner party is centered on conversation. This is especially a perk when you’re working on your language skills! You learn so much about the people you dine with if you are able to foster lively conversation.

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For this dinner, I cooked “Cajun chicken pasta” and then had trouble explaining what exactly “Cajun” means…

Plus, group dinners widen your social circle. You invite your friends, someone brings his girlfriend along, someone else invites their roommate, and pretty soon you have a party! I’ve learned a lot this year about making conversation with people I may not know well, but who are undoubtedly interesting and worth talking to! It turns out small talk doesn’t come any more naturally to me in German as in English, but it’s worth it when you keep interesting company.

Of course, some of the best meals are provided free by the DAAD ;)

Of course, some of the best meals are provided free by the DAAD 😉

For anyone wanting to know how to build a stronger friend group or community, I’d recommend starting a tradition of regular dinner parties with your friends and acquaintances! And I say this even as the staunchest introvert… it’s worth the effort to put yourself out there and invite people to share a meal with you, especially one you’ve cooked. (Plus, cooking for yourself and your friends really cuts down on how much you spend at restaurants, which is a great frugal bonus.)

And we all know that every good dinner ends in dessert, so make sure to plan for that, too!

The cameraman caught me eyeing dessert... busted!

The cameraman caught me eyeing the dessert… busted!

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the dos and don’ts of athens

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As a continuation of my semester break adventures, I signed up to attend an International Water Association symposium in Greece. This was really an incredibly flimsy excuse to do a bit more traveling. I flew into Athens, stayed there for several days before attending the conference about 2.5 hours away, and then returned to Athens for a few more days. I absolutely loved Athens, and I’m really glad I got to spend some time exploring the city! I thought I’d share some tips for people who might want to go there someday…

DO bring good walking shoes. (Self-explanatory.)

DON’T buy your walking shoes two days before your trip. (Oops.)

DO go to Athens while you are a student in the EU. Seriously, if you have a European Union student ID, people will throw free things at you like there’s no tomorrow. I got into the Acropolis and all of the other major and minor archaeological sites for free (as opposed to paying a whopping 12 Euros). My visit to the Acropolis Museum was also free (compared to 5 Euros), and I suspect that I would have gotten reduced or free admission to the city’s other museums had I attended any. I also used public transit for half price!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for "FREE"!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for “FREE”!

DON’T wear a skirt when you go up to the Acropolis. Wannabe hipster that I am, I usually shy away from having “typical” favorites, but my favorite Athens attraction was no doubt the Acropolis, the famous monuments on a hill overlooking the city (including, most famously, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike). I went up twice because it was so wonderful (and because it was free). The second time, I learned from my previous mistake: it’s super windy up there, and wearing a skirt shorter than probably ankle length is not advisable. I spent the whole time half focused on avoiding a Marilyn Monroe incident.

Clearly not super successful

Clearly not super successful

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DO fondly recall your education in Greek mythology/philosophy as you see the sights. I loved learning about Greek mythology in school (my favorite goddesses were Demeter and Athena, namesake of Athens, and I also really liked Hermes, the wing-footed messenger god). It was cool to see all the ancient temples dedicated to the cults of the different deities. I have also studied Greek philosophy and literature somewhat extensively (thanks Plan II) so it was fantastic to see the Academy of Athens, which is steeped in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Ancient Agora, the birthplace of democracy!

I'd like to thank the Academy

I’d like to thank the Academy

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

 

DON’T be fooled by disparate English names. Don’t follow my example; I was the world’s least educated tourist during most of my time in Athens. I had a vague idea of the things I wanted to see, but I barely knew the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon ahead of time. (The Acropolis is the entire hilltop of monuments and ruins; the Parthenon is the most famous of those monuments/ruins.) And so in my ignorance, I created a bit of confusion for myself… for instance, I knew I wanted to see the “Roman Gate and Tower of the Winds,” but even when I followed street signs and wrote down the exact Google Map directions to this supposed monument, I could never find it… until I realized that I had actually already seen it, and that the signage calls it by a different name (the “Roman Agora”). So, in general, I guess it’s a good idea to be a bit more informed than I was, but when all else fails, remember that the translations into English/the Roman alphabet won’t always be exact…

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

DO eat ALL the Greek food! Souvlaki, various roasted meats and vegetables, hummus, gyros, feta cheese, Greek salad, Greek yogurt and honey… there’s a lot to love. Try it all! (As I’m not an eggplant lover, I did not try moussaka, but that’s one of the most famous dishes.) Greek beer is also surprisingly wonderful! I was glad I went off the beaten path to find less touristy restaurants with better value. I enjoyed a spicy “drunken” beef stew at a tiny restaurant in Plaka (where the waiter treated me to a free aperitif!), and I had delicious fresh mussels from Lesvos in one of the residential districts north of the Academy.  Also, the pastries are delicious; I had one for breakfast every morning and never regretted the decision (but what else is new?).

DON’T casually look at too many street-side menus as you try to pick a restaurant. Waiters and hosts at restaurants are SUPER aggressive. I had to walk past a strip of touristy restaurants several times in the process of getting money from an ATM, and at the time I was literally eating an ice cream cone, so I figured I would be safe from harassment, but no… one of the waiters actually called after me, “That’s not enough for you. You need more.”  If you so much as slow down in front of a restaurant, let alone look at the menu, you will have a table, a menu, and a glass of water faster than you can say “baklava.”

DO see the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square. I’ve seen several changings of guards now, including the famous one at Buckingham Palace and the less famous one at Prague Castle, and the Athenian version is definitely the most entertaining. It involves ridiculous uniforms, slow-motion marching, and lots of high kicks (also in slow motion). Fun for everyone.

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DON’T be alarmed by the number of intimidating looking police officers everywhere. Around Syntagma, there really are police officers everywhere, ostensibly guarding the parliament building and the many embassies in the area. [I found out later that there were so many police in the city because of the Greek Independence Day Parade, which occurred my second-to-last day in Athens.] They’re really intensely outfitted with shields, large guns, and what looked like gas masks, and around the Parliament building they seemed to gather in large groups. I jaywalked as I rushed to get to the square by the top of the hour to see the guards change, and at that moment a HUGE group of officers started processing through the square. I was convinced for several minutes that they were going to arrest me.

Also, DON’T plan to be in Athens on March 25, Greek Independence Day. The whole city shuts down and it’s impossible to get anywhere because of the large military parade that runs through the middle of Athens. I had Vietnam-style flashbacks from the time I was in New York on St. Patrick’s Day…

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DO climb Mount Lycabettus. It’s the highest hill in Athens and you get an absolutely breathtaking panoramic view. There’s a small Greek church at the top, which is gorgeous. Especially if you’ve already been in Athens for a few days, it’s fun to spot all the different landmarks from way up high!

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

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This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

DON’T be tempted to take the funicular tram to the top. That was my original plan, but then I realized that I shouldn’t plan to pay for something that I could do for free! So I hiked instead, and it was a really great decision. There were so many gorgeous flowers and beautiful vegetation, and I got to enjoy a range of spectacular views as I ascended the mountain.

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DO take a gratuitous number of selfies if you are traveling solo.

At the Parthenon

At the Parthenon

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

DON’T be ashamed of it.

With the Erechtheon

With the Erechtheon

At the National Library

At the National Library

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora... are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora… are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

salamanca (the highlights)

I spent about 10 days in Salamanca, because that’s where Daniel is studying. It felt initially like a looooong time to spend in one place. (I got to know the staff of my hostel very well.) Because it was an extended trip, it was much more like visiting my boyfriend than being a tourist, and we had a wonderful time!

I’m sure you don’t want to read a play-by-play recap, and neither do I want to write one, so I won’t. I’ll just tell you about what we did!

We ate. A lot. We ate churros and chocolate, montaditos and bocadillos, jamón and chorizo and lomo, every under-10-Euro lunch menu in town, paella, tapas, gelato, and lots of bread. DSC04164DSC04225

We drank. We especially enjoyed the “cubito” deals at various cervecerías that get you a bucket of 5 bottles of beer for just a few Euros. We searched everywhere for sangría and finally found it. We scored an entire bottle of wine with our 6.50 lunch special one day and walked out of the restaurant quite tipsy. DSC04397DSC04166

We walked. The streets of Salamanca are winding and a little confusing, but we didn’t care if we got lost (except if we were on our way to catch a bus). We searched for and finally found the little hidden garden behind the cathedral. We walked across the Roman Bridge to get a good view of the whole city. DSC04191DSC04177DSC04096DSC04398

We saw beautiful buildings. Salamanca’s skyline is dominated by a HUGE cathedral, which is actually two cathedrals in one. We didn’t actually see it together (on the inside), because we procrastinated and I ended up going to daily Mass on my last day to see it for free!DSC04207DSC04402

We took a tour of the Pontifical University, an old Jesuit school and seminary, and enjoyed stunning views from the domes.DSC04122DSC04108

One of the city’s iconic buildings is the Casa de las Conchas, the Shell Building, which is a public library. I (sometimes) worked there in the mornings while Daniel was in class.DSC04154DSC04158

And of course the University, which is turning 800 years old in 2018. We met there every day after Daniel was done with his classes. We found the frog (with some help). DSC04181DSC04183

We lounged. We people-watched. We talked and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. DSC04409

And I was wrong. It wasn’t a long time, or it didn’t seem like it. It went by in a second.

a German thanksgiving

This post brought to you by a writing break I’m taking because the winds caused by Winter Storm Xaver are howling uncontrollably, preventing me from focusing on my actual work.

In the past, I have claimed proudly that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t necessarily consider it that anymore… I’m not actually sure I have a favorite holiday… but I do have a soft spot in my heart for a day reserved for hanging out with many of my favorite people and eating many of my favorite foods (mashed potatoes are probably my very favorite food and I starkly prefer pie to cake).

But alas, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get to celebrate it this year, if I did at all. Some of my German friends had expressed an interest in doing something the day of Thanksgiving, and my thoughtful and generous Aunt Mary Beth even wired me a little Thanksgiving fund so I could at least treat myself to dinner somewhere. But due to some terrible judgement on my part, I have a class from 6:30 until 8 on Thursdays, which is especially cruel when you know that your family and friends are probably sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner as you learn about soil types.

However, as it turns out, non-Americans don’t know when Thanksgiving is supposed to be, so if all but two of your Thanksgiving guests don’t care that you are celebrating it on a Sunday, you just might be able to get away with it! So that’s what we did! The Sunday after Thanksgiving, which as you may recall was actually the first Sunday of Advent, which could take away Thanksgiving’s spotlight if you let it, we had an amazing Thanksgiving feast. For most of those in attendance it was their FIRST Thanksgiving! So that was pretty cool.

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Photo cred to Domi because I am too lazy to hook up my camera right now

Felicitas and I planned out the menu by deciding to cook the Thanksgiving non-negotiables ourselves and then ask everyone else to bring the side dishes. So I bought a bunch of turkey (I was not about to attempt my first ever real Thanksgiving turkey this year, so I bought some turkey breasts and turkey cutlets), Felicitas found cranberries for cranberry sauce and cranberry pie, as well as pumpkins for pumpkin soup and pumpkin cake, and I tried in vain to make gravy (it was disgusting and I did not serve it). We also made some improvisational vegetables to round out the meal.

(Actually, I should clarify that we did not make cranberry sauce–we made cranberry RELISH, a time-honored Swaintek/Lord family tradition that apparently came from a recipe on the back of a bag of Ocean Spray cranberries. But regardless, I insisted that we make it because it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it, and it was a huge hit. Everyone loved it and we barely had any left over to eat with the next-day turkey!)

Our guests brought salad, rice, sweet potatoes, dessert, and so much beer and wine! The person who had volunteered to bring potatoes had to cancel at the last minute, and since it was Sunday, we had a short panic that we wouldn’t be able to get our hands on any. But luckily a 365-day Lidl just opened at the train station and our wonderful British friend Nathaniel didn’t mind boiling them up for us! So we did have potatoes and all was well in the world.

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Even better than the food was the company. In addition to we two Americans, we had one Brit, one Hungarian, one Nigerian, and lots of Germans. Two of my friends have been au pairs in the US before, so they’d celebrated Thanksgiving at least once, but we answered lots of questions from inquiring minds wanting to know how we REALLY celebrate Thanksgiving in the States, why football is so important to the holiday (try coming up with an answer to that one…), and the origin of Thanksgiving.

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Like any good Thanksgiving celebration, we ate way too much, and then we waited awhile and we ate way too much dessert, and we talked and enjoyed each other’s company. This was the first time I’ve ever had to do dishes from Thanksgiving dinner and I’d just like to say “thank you!” to my mother and all the other wonderful people who normally DO have to clean up after the Turkey Day carnage. It’s 5 days later and I just finished washing everything.

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Felicitas and I are actually going to be celebrating Thanksgiving again tomorrow in Jena with Allie, who studied at Northwestern with Flitzi. But thankfully I won’t be the one cooking the turkey! We will, however, be making cranberry relish…. Flitzi bought six cartons of cranberries from Karstadt yesterday in anticipation!

london part 2: literally walking right out of my shoes

When we last saw our hero, she was getting ready for Day 3 in London…

Saturday: Since I missed the East End Tour on Friday, I decided to go on Saturday instead! The tour started at Liverpool Street Station, so I headed there first thing. Luckily, there is a Starbucks in the station so I was able to get a few messages out to Joey suggesting a few places to meet for tea later in the day. The tour was smaller than the first I’d taken… it was me, a family of 4, two college-age students from Australia, and an English dad and his son, all led by our tour guide, who had a fantastic mustache.

Starting the tour with some German flair... this monument thanks the English, on behalf of the international Jewish community, for sheltering thousands of Jewish children from central and eastern Europe who came to London via Liverpool Street Station during WWII.

Starting the tour with some German flair… this monument thanks the English, on behalf of the international Jewish community, for sheltering thousands of Jewish children from central and eastern Europe who came to London via Liverpool Street Station during WWII.

Now, I wasn’t incredibly crazy about this tour, but we did get to learn some interesting history: apparently the Liverpool Street Station was originally Bethlehem Mental Hospital (colloquially called “Bedlam,” which is where we got the phrase meaning “madness”) back in the days when mental hospitals weren’t incredibly common. Then, apparently, the wonders of capitalism opened up the hospital for tourism! What an awful thought.

We walked into the actual city of London, which is really a tiny, tiny area governed entirely by banks. The bankers do apparently have a disturbing amount of power in Parliament. We saw Old Spitalfield Market, which was cool because I actually learned about Victorian London food systems in a class I took last year, as well as some really, really old ruins of the burial grounds that used to surround the hospital that Spitalfield was named for. And we learned as much as we could about Jack the Ripper, which really isn’t much because no one really knows anything about him.

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Then we saw some street art, which I guess was cool but isn’t really my jam. I’d say my main takeaway from this tour was the general feel I got for the East End, past and present: a real melting pot of immigrants, lower-class people figuring out how to get by in such a huge, international, at times incredibly unsafe city. The danger comes from many places: poverty, violence, fire, raw sewage flowing down your street… I got to see parts of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, or known what to make of, or wouldn’t have probably felt comfortable walking through all alone.

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I then made my way back to Starbucks to see what kind of plan Joey had formed in my absence. Not a great one, it turned out, since we had decided on an even worse meeting place than the previous day’s… the Tube stop in the neighborhood where we’d be having tea. It turns out that a Tube stop is actually the worst place to meet someone if you won’t be able to call each other and you aren’t exactly sure what time you will arrive. But we finally found each other and walked to the cutest little tea place.

This is probably my biggest concrete endorsement for things to do in London: GO TO THE MUFFIN MAN TEA SHOP IN KENSINGTON. There are lots of walking tours, and I’m sure they’re all great; there are lots of museums, and I know they’re all great. But seriously, if you are on a budget and you want to experience a quaint, delicious, affordable tea, this is the place you need to go. It was adorable. Their carrot cake was probably the best I’ve ever had (sorry, Mom and Ms. Lynn). The clotted cream I stole from Joey was delicious. And you can have a decent English high tea for 5-7 £. (At this point, my camera decided to die, so Joey has all the pictures.)

As we enjoyed our tea, scones, and cake, Joey and I conversed about our common UT experience, our study abroad experience, and other random life things. It was nice and relaxed. However, during this time I was also fiddling with my shoe and actually loosened the heel such that it was definitely about to come off. I figured I could get through the next day and then get them repaired in Dresden.

After tea, we walked around in the incredibly posh surrounding neighborhoods of Chelsea, Kensington, and Notting Hill. If you wanted to go into a really cute book shop or antique shop or something, I guess this is where you’d do it. I think this is the area Princess Diana is from, and of course it’s where the cinema classic Notting Hill took place so you know it’s legit.

At this point, I think we headed to the British Museum with the intent of actually seeing a few exhibits, but by the time we got there, it was just closing, so we changed our plan a little bit. We walked over to the nearby Piccadilly Circus to see what all the fuss was about. From what I could tell, it’s like London’s version of Time’s Square… some big screens around, lots of big commercial things like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and some theaters… we decided it would be best to find a pub somewhere and sit down with a beer.

Trafalgar Square by night

Trafalgar Square by night

Figuring that most places in this area would be super expensive, we were very choosy and ended up finding a Pret first and getting a sandwich.  Pret is weird in that they charge you more for your food if you’re planning to eat in the restaurant, so we took our food outside. We ended up getting really cold and just going into the nearest bar, which was actually a great decision, because the beer was delicious and very affordable! So we enjoyed our beer and some more great conversation, casually observing everyone else’s ridiculous Halloween costumes. Then we headed back to our respective homes after deciding on a sane and reasonable meeting place for the next day: the church next to my hostel.

Sunday: As it turned out, my hostel was actually right next door to an apparently well known Anglican Use Church. I had never been to an Anglican Use Mass before, but a friend of mine wrote his Plan II thesis about Anglican Use in Texas, so I knew a little about it, and because it was so close by (to me, not to Joey at all), it was the natural option for Sunday Mass. It was really beautiful (despite the interesting use of space in the church, haha). They used wonderful music and the visiting priest gave a great homily.

Afterwards, we stayed for tea and biscuits with some of the parishioners. One very friendly guy told us all about Our Lady of Walsingham, an apparition of Mary very important to the Anglo-Catholic Church, and introduced us to the organist, who promptly made it weird by asking if we were visiting the church because we wanted to get married there. After uncomfortably laughing our way through the explanation that we are just friends from college, we decided to leave and get some lunch, which was not as easy as I had expected because all the restaurants on the main street in Battersea were apparently closed for Sunday lunch. So we ended up going into town, where I made things difficult by being incredibly indecisive… we ended up getting deciding on an Asian fast food place, of sorts.

Then, we finally made it to the British Museum, where we perused their Europe exhibit, which was simultaneously interesting and disappointing. For instance, they had a whole room devoted to clocks and watches through the years, and then a room half the size devoted to the entire 20th century, which mainly included Russian plates and cutlery that looked like it was from Ikea (and which did not reference either of the World Wars). There was one big room displaying items from Europe between 1400-1800 and William Shakespeare didn’t get a single mention. It was odd.

Meanwhile, I admired some teapots.

Meanwhile, I admired some teapots.

We then bopped around north central London for a bit, walking through a couple of parks on our way to King’s Cross Station, which it turns out isn’t really near anything, but any self-respecting Harry Potter fan needs to go to take the touristy picture near Platform 9 3/4, so that’s what we did! We waited in a line filled with children and their parents, proudly donned our chosen House’s scarves (Ravenclaw all the way!), and posed for professional photographs we were too cheap to pay for while also forgetting to turn on the flash of our own cameras, rendering our personal photos entirely too blurry. But, alas, it happened and we were very excited.

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Then we walked around the surrounding neighborhood for about 25 minutes (it seemed like an eternity because my feet were absolutely killing me!) looking for somewhere that would sell us dessert. Joey had a craving for a chocolate souffle, of all things, and while that request may have been entirely unrealistic, we didn’t find a single (open) place that even served food. So we headed back to the station and ate there. I had a strawberry tart and some tea and it was glorious.

However, during this time I also realized that during our trek through London, the heel of my boot (like, the bottom rubber-y part, not the entire heel) had entirely fallen off. So that was a bummer, but I was leaving the next morning, so I guess it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. (I did take the boots to a cobbler yesterday, and it was surprisingly affordable to fix BOTH shoes, as it looks like the other heel is about to go, as well. So no worries, I won’t be without my black boots this winter!)

As it started to get late, I realized that I should probably figure out how I would go about getting to the airport in the morning. Luckily, as we were at King’s Cross, I could buy a train ticket to the airport right there, so I did, and we slowly made our way back home. It was really great to spend some time with a friend from home, and Joey was a great host in his new city. It’s a lot of fun to travel solo and explore a new city on your own, but it is a different kind of fun to share it with a friend.

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(And I suppose it’s worth mentioning that at my hostel gave a half-price drink ticket to all guests, and I made the fantastic decision to have a Lynchburg Lemonade before I went to bed. Whiskey makes everything better.)

a few adventures

{maybe a few too many, given my current self-inflicted house arrest due to sickness. I blame the terrible gene pool recombinations that gifted me with misbehaving sinuses, but I’m doing some reading, drinking some tea, and finding some time to write; all good things and nothing much to complain about!}

Anyway. I’ve been out and about a bit the past week, first on a trip to the Sächsische Schweiz with my host family.DSC03311The Sächsiche Schweiz (or Saxon Switzerland) is a region just outside of Dresden known for striking hills and cliffs, and the Elbe River runs through it. The region extends into the Czech Republic (though the Czech region is known as the Böhmische Schweiz).

Our first stop was a trip to Festung Königsfeld, a former Saxon fortress. 200 years ago it was besieged by Napoleon’s army! But it’s way older than that, of course. We walked around the edges of the fortress walls, taking in a panorama of amazing views of the countryside! I was hoping the landscape would be a little more autumnal than it turned out to be, but there were some red and orange leaves to be seen.DSC03332Within the fortress, we got to see restored and/or museum-ized versions of many of its buildings. We saw the well (water collection is the most important aspect of life in an isolated community like a fortress!), which collects water from a remarkable depth: it took several minutes for the collection bucket to rise from the water level to us at the mouth of the well, and when the tour guide threw some water back down, it took 16 seconds to hit the bottom! We also saw the treasury, the church, the ammunition magazine, and the beer cellar (which would have held HUGE casks of beer: think several people high!)

A few centuries ago, beer would certainly have been safer than water direct from the well!

A few centuries ago, beer would certainly have been safer than water direct from the well!

After our adventure at Königstein, we headed to the Czech side of the border for some hiking! First, we stopped for lunch at a little touristy restaurant where I sampled Knödel alongside my pork and gravy. Knödel are “white bread dumplings” and they are just about as heavy and starchy as they sound. I guess I had to try ’em once, considering they’re a Czech staple, but I will probably not be eating them again 😉 I’ll stick with potatoes, please.

The trail we hiked was a series of cliffs and rock formations, starting with a stunning view of the valley:DSC03343

DSC03348We had a little key telling us the “names” of each rock formation, even though it seems they messed up the numbering somehow, since none of the rocks looked like they were supposed to, and the numbering didn’t match what was on the paper. We had fun trying to figure out how that could possibly be “Hercules,” or “Elephant Leg” or whatever. It turns out if someone tells you a rock looks like something, you’ll be able to see it.DSC03358The next day, I set out for Prague with my roommate (as of next week!) and some of her friends. They were nice enough to let me tag along on their vacation. I was reminded of my trip to New Mexico/Colorado with my own BFFs back home. Good times, friends. Good times.

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Taken from the hood of a car thanks to auto-timer! As all good group photos are…

The first notable thing about this trip was how little it cost to get to and from. Most of us were students, and our student IDs could get us (for free) from Dresden to the German border. That was about half the trip already, so the remaining price wasn’t much at all!

On Saturday, we started off with a self-guided walking tour around the city. We hit all the landmarks: the castle overlooking the city, the cathedral, the Senate building and gardens, the famous Karlsbrücke bridge, Old Town square bustling with tourists food vendors (whole pigs roasting on spits! Imagine it!), the Astronomical Clock in the Altstadt, so many old, majestic buildings and shops… there is just so much to see!! We walked around for hours.DSC03442

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DSC03415After a short rest at our hostel, some of us headed back out to the Altstadt to see a marching band parade! It was exactly what it sounds like. My roommate Agnes’ sister and dad are in a marching band back in their hometown, and this very weekend, many bands from around the region all participated in a parade around Prague! It was fun to experience such a fun and lively environment and hear some music.

We recovered from the afternoon in our hostel, writing and addressing postcards we’d bought along the way and drinking some beer, of course. We found a restaurant near the hostel and treated ourselves to some delicious Czech food. {because of my aversion to Knödel, I opted for Prague sausage with potato pancakes.} As we digested our meal, we took a quick climb back up to the castle to view the city at night. Just as stunning, albeit more difficult to photograph.DSC03491We ended the night with drinks: more beer, of course, and a Czech plum liquor called Slavovitz. I was not a fan, but you have to try everything at least once, yes?

On Sunday, we had to check out of our hostel early, so we stashed our bags to pick them up later. {I learned my lesson this trip about overpacking. I brought way too much stuff! I know better now.}

Most of the group went to an art museum in the city; some went exploring in parts of the town we hadn’t seen yet; and I went to Mass at Our Lady of Victory Church, which is famous for the Infant Jesus of Prague. It was beautiful, yet under construction, so that kind of takes away from the beauty. I didn’t take any pictures inside, because Mass, but google it and you’ll see a better representation of its beauty than I got to!

Funny story: I was just sitting in the pew, minding my own business and waiting for Czech mass to finish (for some reason, despite the reported 10 AM start time, it went right up till noon when the English mass started) when the woman coordinating Mass came up to me, asked me if I would be staying for English Mass. When I said yes, she asked me if I’d like to read the first reading! Of course I said yes, but it was just the weirdest thing. The guy behind me (also American) read the second reading. We processed up together at the right time, coats and bags in tow to prevent theft by wandering tourists, and probably confused everyone with our American accents. The whole thing was just hilarious to me; I would go to Mass in Prague and be needed to do a reading. Definitely a fun and unique story. (Sorry for the lead-up in the last post and the subsequent self-explanatory story. It turns out there wasn’t much to it.)

The whole group met up at 1, at which time we went on a little hike. Up to a tower on the hill overlooking Prague, which promised a panoramic view of the city.

{One funny thing about living in a foreign language, at least in my experience, is that making and/or discussing plans is especially challenging. My host dad was gone for a week on business and I had no idea where he was until after he got back, and not for a lack of people talking about it. You think you know exactly what is happening, so you don’t ask questions, but it turns out you’ve missed essential details without knowing it.}

So the whole time, when people had been discussing the plan for the afternoon, I thought we’d be doing the thing where you pay to go up to the top of the tower of the cathedral, or something. For such an activity, I was adequately dressed. But for a hike to the top of a hill and then further climbing of stairs, I was not equipped. My too-heavy-already winter jacket was too hot; my boots were definitely not of the hiking variety; I could totally have left my huge purse behind. But alas, we survive, and have pictures like these to show for our efforts:DSC03529After lunch, we made record time in getting ourselves to the main train station… it was a haul, and we made our train by six minutes. There were some tense moments on the way there, but it happened, and we made it back to Dresden.

Not before I had come down with something, unfortunately, so I spent Monday rehabilitating before heading to Berlin on Tuesday to see my dad. I probably should have stayed home and rested, but I already had my bus ticket, and when else will someone in my family be in Europe in the next 2 months, and I knew my fleece jacket and other goodies would also be waiting in dad’s hotel room. And so I went. Several minor snafus later (who opens an Astoria Hotel 10 minutes away from the Waldorf Astoria? You are facilitating frustration on the part of cab drivers and confused daughters everywhere), we found each other and commenced the party* in Berlin.

*In this instance, “party” constitutes drinking tea, eating necessary comfort food, getting lost on the way to the Brandenburg Gate, seeing 3 Berlin things, getting tired due to sickness/jetlag, and going to bed at 8 pm.