freiburg (with a strasbourg bonus)

Well folks, this is my last travel post! How did we get here? [how the hell? Pan left…] I had about 10 different plans back in October of how I would get back to Freiburg, and in the end I went my second-to-last weekend in Europe, but better late than never! I brought Felicitas along with me and hopefully did not annoy her too much with my constant wonderment at being back.


And because we procrastinated in finding a hostel/apartment/hotel, we weren’t able to find anywhere in Freiburg for Saturday night. So, we decided to go to Strasbourg for the evening before going our separate ways on Sunday, myself back to Dresden and Flitzi to visit her grandparents in Wiesbaden. It all worked out wonderfully!

We had an early flight from Dresden to Stuttgart on Friday morning and then took a series of regional trains to Freiburg, which took about 4 hours because there isn’t anything direct! Which is a bit ridiculous, but anyway, we made it there by 2 PM. Our hostel was very basic but had an amazing location right off the Dreisam (technically a river, apparently, but more like a creek), adjacent to the Schlossberg hill which overlooks the city. We saw some of the sites as we walked to the hostel, and I began my 24 hours of marveling at how time and memory work.


I was in Freiburg three years ago. I’m a totally different person now than I was when I left. I’ve spent so much time thinking about Freiburg and missing it and reminiscing about it. And then to be back… it was like no time had passed, but like an eternity had elapsed since I was last there. It’s strange. But in all, it was nice to be back. We’ll leave it at that.

Because we were so nearby, we climbed the Schlossberg first, taking in fabulous views like this one:


And I recreated some old photos from last time:


We tried to find the overlook tower but somehow failed, so we descended into the city, bought some bottled water before we died of thirst, and started meandering the familiar (to me) streets.

By the time we got there, the Münster market had mostly already closed and packed up for the day, and we got to briefly see the inside of the cathedral but there was Mass happening so we couldn’t stay for long. After a quick trip to dip our feet in the Dreisam and an even quicker “tour” of the university, we stopped at my very favorite restaurant, Euphrat, a middle eastern place owned by an Afghani family. I ate there close to every day while I lived in Freiburg and I have dreamed (dreamt?) of their food ever since. And it did not disappoint my memory!



We enjoyed a scoop of ice cream near the theater (which now serves as the end station of most of the tram lines due to major construction in the city center) and jumped on a tram up to my old abode, StuSie. I do not have fond memories of StuSie (my dorm was disgusting and I didn’t have many friends there to speak of), but one good thing about it was always its proximity to the Seepark, a gorgeous park surrounding a huge lake. So that was our destination for the evening.


My only regret: that I forgot my swimsuit in Dresden!!! It would have been so refreshing to take a dip.

OH!! One other thing I got to check off my Freiburg bucket list–sitting on the Blaue Brücke, a bridge over the train tracks. All the cool kids go sit on the top of the bridge and drink beer, and i never got to do it… until this time! It was incredibly terrifying but hey. I did it. (Minus the beer. Whatever.)


On Saturday morning, we rented bikes from our hostel first thing so we’d be able to use them all day, and first stopped for breakfast near the university at my favorite bakery, Ihr Backshop. They’d renovated since I was last there, but the pastries are still just as delicious. After making a quick stop at the post office to buy stamps, we set out for our first destination of the morning: the Schönstatt shrine in Merzhausen!


I seriously wish I had visited the shrine more often when I actually lived in Freiburg! It’s in an absolutely beautiful location, and to be honest I was in a place mentally and spiritually back then that could seriously have benefitted from some more time spent chilling with the Blessed Mother. It was fun being back there and telling Felicitas a little bit about Schönstatt (not easy to do, but she was a great “student”). It was great to be able to re-center myself in a familiar place and hopefully receive some graces as I go through a huge transition in returning home and then moving again!


One fun bonus: there were blackberry brambles all over the place with ripe fruit!! While we were in Merzhausen we filled up a whole tupperware container with delicious blackberries, which we continued to refill throughout the day as we saw more bushes.


We cruised back into town, parked our bikes near the Augustiner (it’s a chore to walk them on cobblestone, and foot traffic was way too heavy to ride through the streets) and headed for the Münster and market, which we hadn’t yet seen!


We did a quick loop through the Münster, which was packed with tourists, before spending some time perusing the market. It’s absolutely insane to me how big the daily market is in Freiburg. Every day with dozens of stands selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, meat, spices, toys, souvenirs… It’s so lively and fun! I spotted a vendor with some tea that we loved when I brought it as a hostess gift to Krakow, so I bought a satchel of it to bring home 🙂


Euphrat had been so delicious the day before that we opted to eat there for lunch, this time ordering wraps to-go which we ate sitting along the Bächle.


We continued meandering through the streets, taking in the unique medieval-but-modern charm (and wondering to ourselves how it could be so different from Dresden, yet in the same country!), and I insisted that we stop at the Feierling brewery Biergarten. Felicitas doesn’t drink beer, so I ordered a solitary half-liter because I’m only in Germany for two more weeks and I need to enjoy it while I can! 😉

Hmm, sorry for all the indulgent pictures of myself... my  blog, my rules.

Hmm, sorry for all the indulgent pictures of myself… my blog, my rules.

With our time winding down until we had to fetch our things from the hostel and head to the train station to catch our bus, we headed again for the Dreisam. It was amazing to spend some time relaxing, wading in the shallow but frigid water, and enjoying the fact that nature and city can coexist so closely! It really is beautiful there.


The next thing we knew, we were on a bus to Strasbourg, and before long, we were standing in France! Against all odds, we made it to our hotel (we had a private room AND bathroom. LUXURY), changed and freshened up quickly, and walked to the famous Strasbourg cathedral for Saturday night vigil Mass.

Normally I highly endorse going to Mass at beautiful churches to avoid entrance fees and get the authentic experience, but in this case it was literally the only way that Felicitas and I were both going to make it to Mass. Mission accomplished! Luckily we had read the readings ahead of time so we kind of knew what was happening. We did get to have a little fun making up our own words to the Mass parts.

It turns out that things in Strasbourg are expensive, especially food. Luckily, we did happen to stumble upon a restaurant/brewery that was un-touristy enough to only have a French menu and seemed to mainly cater to students and young people. Ergo, affordable Alsatian food for all!

Flammkuchen and beer

Flammkuchen and beer

Strasbourg is a beautiful city, you guys. I’d been there with my mom at the very beginning of my 2011 European adventures, but that was before I really became a conscientious traveler and I hardly remember anything except seeing the astronomical clock and dancing apostles at the cathedral (which, incidentally, was out of order this time due to construction). I don’t recall much else! But it’s gorgeous. Surrounded by a canal from the Rhine, the city has so many beautiful bridges which were even more gorgeous this time of year because of the flowers they’re decorated with!

DSC06549Not to mention stunning gothic architecture and lots of German-style Fachwerk houses.

We got to see a lot of the city in the short time we had by taking a boat tour. It was a little oddly-paced, and at some points we were really low and couldn’t see much that the tour recording was telling us about. Regardless, it was a good choice because we got to see and learn so much in a short period of time.

A few quick facts (with not many accompanying photos because most of our tour was after nightfall and the photos I attempted to take were awful):

  • Strasbourg is part of Alsace-Lorraine, the contested territory between France and Germany. It’s gone back and forth so much, but the truth is that it’s its own distinct region with aspects of French and German culture, architecture, language, etc.
  • Strasbourg is the seat of the EU Capital, which I had no idea about until this weekend! We got to see all of the parliamentary and official buildings, which were stunningly modern and striking, especially at night!
  • It is really awkward to sit in a tour boat both in front of and behind incredibly amorous couples.
  • During the summer, they have light projection shows on the Vauban Barrage (one of the city’s important landmarks) and the cathedral. We got to catch both!

On Sunday morning, I walked Felicitas to the train station as she left for Wiesbaden and I bought my ticket to the airport for later that afternoon. I spent the rest of the day walking around and seeing parts of the town I hadn’t gotten to the day before, taking photos, getting caught in the rain, going inside to cafés and restaurants and paying too much money to avoid the rain, and writing postcards.

Here are some photo highlights!

On the water at dusk

On the water at dusk (that church is not the cathedral)

Before Mass shot!

Before Mass shot! (That church is the cathedral)

Detail shot of the cathedral

Detail shot of the cathedral


The Covered Bridge, one of Strasbourg’s signature sites, once used as an armory. Cathedral in the background!


Casually donning an Alsacian costume and headdress




I would say something meaningful here about this being my last trip of the year, but I’m just as tired and burnt out writing about it as I was at the end of the actual trip. So I guess I’ll just include a little taste of my next destination….


should i stay or should i go?

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I have been in Germany for all of June and will continue to be so for the next 6 days that remain of the month, which is crazy. And really the only “travel” I’ve done during this month was that little trip to Jena and Weimar, which was just a day trip. So it’s got me thinking about a topic I’ve wrestled with a lot during my time in Dresden: balancing traveling with staying put.

Of course, staying in Dresden (especially on such a sunny and beautiful day) is a tempting notion

Of course, staying in Dresden (especially on such a sunny and beautiful day) is a tempting notion

This truly is a champagne problem, but it’s one that’s caused me a bit of undue stress at times. While I’m abroad and have the time/funds/ability, I want to travel, see different places, and experience different things. And my incentive to do so, as an American living for a limited time in Europe, is much higher than that of a European living elsewhere in Europe and definitely higher than a German just plain living at home.

But I am also living in Dresden, my home for the past 9.5 months and the next 1.25 months, and I want to actually live here, rather than using it as a “home base” between travels… which it has been, at times, specifically during March and May, my crazy travel months. If I’m always gone on crazy trips, when will I have the time to be a normal Dresdner, making friends and shopping at the grocery store and going to class and church and watching World Cup games?

(a small interjection: USA USA USA! So excited for tomorrow's game!!)

(a small interjection: USA USA USA! So excited for tomorrow’s game!! I’ll be watching in enemy territory at a Biergarten in Blasewitz…)

And so there is this pull between traveling to just one or two more places, or staying in Dresden to soak up more of the life here. I do think I’ve done a good job balancing, but I won’t lie that I haven’t had a few ridiculous (and believe me, I know I am ridiculous and spoiled by my fabulous life) moments of “But I want to go on another trip!” while I am in Dresden, or “But why can’t I just sleep in my own bed?” while traveling.

The difference that I mentioned about my perspective on European travel versus the perspectives of my friends and acquaintances here is also sometimes… challenging. I’ve felt at times that I’ve had to apologize for or explain my desire to travel yet again. I’ve since realized that it’s crazy to feel guilty for taking advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given. But still there has been this internal calculation in my mind whenever I’ve planned a trip… what will I miss at home when I’m gone? But when will I ever have the chance to see this place or that place if I don’t get there now???

In the end, a lot of it comes down to being satisfied in the here and now versus always being worried that you’re missing out on something. Choosing to do one thing always means indirectly choosing not to do other things, and I realize that. Even me being in Germany this year means that I’m not a) completing my first year of my Master’s, b) living closer to my family, c) any number of things that could have alternatively happened; and when I studied abroad I even missed my brother’s high school graduation. Life is a series of choices and choices have consequences and in the end the choice to travel or not is such an inconsequential one that it’s kind of hilarious I’ve just typed so many paragraphs about it.

I haven’t used my blog as an outlet for my emotions in a while, I think. I’m normally careful not to get too… whiney or personal, because I assume you guys don’t want to read that. I’ve mostly dealt with this internal battle since it started surfacing a few months ago. But I think it’s something that most people living/studying abroad, or most people who are living anywhere for a limited time, experience. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I’m torn between spending time doing one thing as opposed to another. And one function of my blog (optimistically) is as an outlet for commiseration between people experiencing the same things in expat life. So maybe my little internal monologue will help someone else? Who knows.


That being said, July is lookin’ good on the time balance front, hopefully. I’m gone basically every weekend, but no trip is longer than a weekend. (The week-long trips I took this spring, while enjoyable and wonderful, really sapped my energy and added up to a lot of time not on a normal, home-life schedule!) I’ll be visiting Budapest, Braunschweig (wikipedia link because it’s one of those pesky German cities that Americans have no idea what it is), and Freiburg, my first German home! I’ve reserved my last weekend in Germany for relaxing Dresden time, probably a going-away party of some sort, and definitely packing and last-minute errands. As if that weren’t enough traveling, I just planned one more trip… for next week, if you can believe it… just one day in Göttingen, where I am meeting Ayse, who lived with my parents during the school year when she was a student-teacher at my high school! I’m excited I finally get to meet her.

The fact that all of my time until I leave is basically booked is a little… overwhelming, if I have to be honest. But at least now I know the score, and I can focus on writing and cherishing while I’m in Dresden, and I can focus on having an amazing time while I’m traveling.

gnome hunting in poland

Our next stop was Wroclaw [pronounced approximately frot-suave], Poland! It is also called Breslau in German, so that’s what I called it for months until I finally learned the correct Polish pronunciation for the way it is also spelled in English! Basically, this part of the world is confusing because the borders have been drawn and re-drawn so many times and the names changed accordingly.

Anyway, Wroclaw is the hometown of Saints Hedwig and Edith Stein, as well as the Red Baron of World War I fame, and I was only vaguely aware of it until I started researching fun places to go when Daniel visited! He suggested Prague but as I’d been there twice, I offered Wroclaw as an alternative. And it paid off nicely.

We arrived in the late afternoon on Friday, withdrew 400 zloty (about 100 euros), and proceeded to have the most fun and cheapest weekend I’ve experienced in a while! My number one priority our first evening was to get my hands on some pierogies, and I had already found a restaurant entirely dedicated to the Polish dumplings of my childhood when we arrived… so we headed straight there! It was right on the main square so we were able to have a nice look around before our pierogie adventure.


9 pierogies for about 5 Euros! We definitely could have settled for the “small” option rather than “large.” Of course, no pierogies come close to my Babi’s, but these also didn’t quite measure up to the pierogie platter I shared with Niki in Krakow.

Stuffed, we proceeded to wander around the square a bit. We saw the intricate and beautiful town hall and the colorful gabled houses surrounding the square.


And we spotted our first gnome! Reportedly there are over 200 of these guys scattered around town, and even though we had read all about them (including the fact that they are “easy to overlook”), you really don’t know how many things “hidden in plain sight” you pass by if you just aren’t paying attention! So, we only found one on that first evening.

We also leisurely perused the market stalls offering various wares. I was mostly interested in the Polish amber jewelry. It really is incredibly gorgeous. And true to form, we tracked down a place to get our hands on some good beer. Our trusty tourist map led us to a place that served craft beer from Poland and around the world… we probably could have chosen better (Daniel didn’t like his and mine wasn’t quite what I expected either so we just switched, and lesson learned) but evening conversations over beers with my favorite guy are always welcome.


The beers may have been stronger than we thought because as Daniel navigated us back to the hostel, we ended up walking twice as far as necessary and all the way back to the train station!!! But in the end, I think we needed the exercise to work off all those pierogies we’d eaten.

Day 2, as expected, was jam packed full of activity, so we started off early! We’d made it to the market square by 9… which was maybe a bit too early because almost nothing was open yet!! So we started off with a solid hour of gnome-searching, and were paid off handsomely now that we were actually paying attention:


Daniel is one of the most competitive people I know, so I should have predicted that he would take the hidden gnomes as a very serious challenge. He was very driven the entire day to find more and more of them, and he took a picture of every single one we found! It kept me laughing all day… and before long I was sucked into the challenge, as well!

We saw the Church of Mary Magdelene (not super impressive and under construction) and walked past the University, which was indeed very beautiful, all the while looking for gnomes. There was a very charming professor gnome at the University, as well as some pretty buildings with shiny doors.


Wroclaw is known for its bridges, given that the city is built on a series of several islands, so we crossed over to Sand Island, where we took a little river cruise!


A view of Cathedral Island, and the cathedral itself, from the river

Crossing yet another bridge to Cathedral Island, we encountered this view, which I think is the most gorgeous in the whole city.


The cathedral was beautiful, as well. It was great to be in Poland where the churches are plentiful and Catholic! I even spotted some priests (or seminarians) walking about town in cassocks… so cool!


Soaking in the last day of the Month of Mary 

We wound our way back to the main square in search of some more Polish food. Of course I had to suggest kielbasa, which was being sold from carts on the square. The kielbasa was good, but I prefer eating it cold with horseradish, a Swaintek tradition that, when I informed Daniel of it, made him absolutely gag. Finally we were able to fill up the empty water bottle we’d been carrying around all day… the sun had finally come out as you can see from the pictures, and we were so dehydrated!!! And I ended up having a headache for the rest of the afternoon, which was just lovely…. We wound our way through the parts of the center square we hadn’t seen yet in search of more gnomes, and in addition we found a lovely little flower market.

Daniel got me this daisy which didn't cure my headache but it did brighten my day! :)

Daniel got me this daisy which didn’t cure my headache but it did brighten my day! 🙂

Next, we were finally able to go into the Basilica of St. Elizabeth. As we went inside, we saw that May 31 was a special day… the anniversary of its founding, and an opportunity to get a plenary indulgence by attending Mass there at the church! What a crazy coincidence. We scrambled to figure out how we could make it work… but all the Mass information and everything was written in Polish and my headache was getting worse and we had already both gotten a plenary indulgence the previous month at the canonization so we decided not to worry about it. Instead we decided to climb up the tower of the basilica to enjoy the view, an experience that would have admittedly been better were my head not pounding with every step! But hey… it cost like a Euro (gotta love Polish inflation?) and I got pictures like this:DSC05910So I don’t really regret it. However, our next stop was our hostel so I could take a nap and be in pain for about an hour until Daniel realized that he did in fact have a few ibuprofen tablets!!! My hero.

We had a very lovely dinner at a little café near the main square and, since we still had a good number of zloty left, we splurged: a cocktail and a dessert each!! We enjoyed one last walk around town, people watching and spotting a few more gnomes, bringing our total up to 36, I believe, by the time we left the next morning.

Even though Daniel and I haven’t seen each other this year as much as we obviously would have liked, it pays off nicely when we are able to spend time in exotic locations and eat fancy dinners and have new adventures together. This trip was especially special for me because in a way Poland is my “motherland”… I’m only half-Polish and I don’t speak the language but it’s the heritage I associate with the most, so it was nice to be able to spend some time there and introduce Daniel to the culture and the food a little bit. It was a lovely weekend… and we highly recommend Wroclaw!


berlin in the rain

It is currently really, really hot in Dresden [ok, fine, a high of 90 according to the Weather Channel, but it’s stifling in my room] and the air conditioned library is closed today because it’s a holiday… so frequent work breaks are necessary. {it’s so hard to type while fanning oneself with a folded up piece of paper} So here we go.

Daniel flew into Berlin two Wednesdays ago so I took the bus to the airport to meet him. It had been pouring cats and dogs in Dresden for a few days and it seemed to be the same in Berlin, so I brought both of my umbrellas just in case, which really worked out for us 🙂 Despite a bus delay, I made it to the airport just in time to welcome Daniel to Germany for the first time ever! It was so good to see him again; I missed him!


We caught a regional train from the airport to Alexanderplatz (or Plaza de Alejandro, as I told Daniel so he would understand me 😉 ) and walked in the rain to our hostel from there… the whole time I regretted wearing a dress because it was also really cold! Trying to recall those sensory memories right now… our hostel was super cool and built over a bar, the best type of hostel in my opinion! We really should have just stayed at the bar and enjoyed their happy hour deals, but I was driven and motivated to show Daniel as much of Berlin as possible, rain be damned!

So, after a stop at a Hackescher Hof restaurant for sausage, potato salad, and beer [we like the orange beer!] we did some quick drive-bys of all the important sights: Fernsehturm, Museum Island and the Berlin Cathedral, Under den Linden, St. Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral, the Ampelmann gift shop of course, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. That is a lot of stuff. And the whole time we were cold and wet and needing to alternate holding umbrellas with taking photos. Basically it was pretty ill-advised and we should have just gone to a museum or something, but by golly, we saw everything, if only for a few moments before we decided to move on and get out of the rain.



We did seek respite at a café where we enjoyed some cake… which was not very good, especially after I had spent about 9 months singing the praises of German bakeries to Daniel. We passed by the English and French Cathedrals shortly after our cake break, and continued on to Checkpoint Charlie, which in addition to being an historical crossing point of the former Berlin Wall also has a McDonalds with a free bathroom!

Lots of people dislike Checkpoint Charlie because it is overhyped and kind of touristy, but I really enjoyed the museum there the last time I was in Berlin, and this time I appreciated it as a good jumping-off point for people who aren’t incredibly knowledgeable about the history of divided and reunified Germany (e.g. Daniel).It’s an easy way to connect to the history via the reconstructed checkpoint and actual signs welcoming you to the American and Soviet sectors respectively, and there is a very informative timeline which explains the events between 1945 and 1990 that we perused under the protection of our umbrellas. I know a lot a lot a lot about that time period (thanks almost 8 years of German in high school and college) but it’s always good to get a quick refresher, and it was nice that Daniel was able to learn some of it via a source other than me giving a very enjoyable lecture. I assume it was nice, anyway. He’ll have to speak for himself.


I remembered from last time that the Topography of Terror was nearby, so we headed there as our last stop before giving up on productive sightseeing. The Topography of Terror is built on the site of the former S.S. Headquarters, and it consists of a library and indoor exhibit (where I’ve never been) and a free history exhibit situated along a still-standing segment of the Berlin Wall. It covers the very vast timeline between the unification of the German empire in 1871 and the reunification of Germany in 1989-1990, focusing greatly on the Nazi party’s ascent to power. We rushed through the exhibit and agreed not to read any photo captions for the sake of our soaked and sore selves.



And then I noticed a nearby bar that served Kölsch, Cologne’s signature beer and one of my favorites! (Houston people… St. Arnold’s Lawnmower is a Kölsch and it is delicious!) So we enjoyed a nice half liter (again, for Daniel it didn’t live up to the hype… sigh) and some wonderful conversation before steeling ourselves for one last walk to the U-Bahn station nearby!

The next day it did not rain–but it was still cold and I regretted not packing correctly for that! 😦 Also it was Ascension Thursday which I completely forgot about until right before we went to bed so everything was closed except the tourist shops and it was a bit creepy! We started the day with a nice, long walk to the East Side Gallery. On the way, we also saw the Fernsehturm, again, and the Rotes Rathaus (town hall). The East Side Gallery is a segment of the Berlin Wall which was re-imagined as an art exhibit: in 1990, artists were invited to paint murals on the wall to overcome the ugliness of division and war (and the wall itself frankly) with beauty and color. Apparently the last time I was there in 2011, the wall had recently been renovated to remove large amounts of graffiti, so I was surprised at how much the murals have been defaced since I saw them last. Nevertheless, there are some really cool, striking, and beautiful ones (as well as some frankly strange ones).



We then took the U-Bahn all the way west to Kurfürstendamm, or KuDamm, the biggest shopping street in the city. There are a few sites there, including a Protestant “memorial church” which is frankly really ugly and there was also a service going on inside so we didn’t go in. Also, since it was Ascension Thursday and everything was closed, there wasn’t really a huge incentive for us to walk down KuDamm so instead we continued past the zoo and aquarium and walked to the Victory Column. It was a very uneventful and kind of cold walk, but it was nice nonetheless… plus, I had never actually seen the Column up close!


We continued down the long boulevard between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate (but for half the time we just walked through the Tiergarten instead). On the way we saw the Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers which I just think is funny and a little creepy, and eventually ended back up at the Brandenburg Gate. It was good to be at Pariser Platz when there were actually other people there!


I had really wanted to make an appointment to see the Reichstag and to go up in the dome, which I have never done before, but I completely forgot until the day before and you need to register at least a week in advance. So that was sad. Instead, we went down into the U-Bahn station near the Brandenburg Gate that now houses a touristic, 2-stop line in memory of the West German U-Bahn workers during the time of the divided Berlin, and also an exhibit about the history of the Brandenburg Gate. Then we hit up Starbucks for some free WiFi to consult Trip Advisor and we found a Prussian-style restaurant nearby. We indulged in some heavy, heavy German food just to say we did it (pork, potatoes and cabbage… the stereotypes have to come from somewhere, don’t they?). Also, more beer. More true stereotypes. Something went wrong at the restaurant and they forgot about our order for a LOOONG time so we did get a free espresso out of it!

Our next stop was the German History Museum, which we had seen the day before on our walk down Unter den Linden. In hindsight we should have gone right then to avoid the rain, but hey, live and learn. The museum is a really impressive account of all German history starting before the Middle Ages… and because “Germany” wasn’t a thing until 1871, the older exhibits are really all-encompassing. Europe was very interconnected what with the Holy Roman Empire and people conquering different lands and marrying each other all the time… hence, the history was very dense and we spent way too much time in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. So by the time the museum was closing, we were rushingrushingrushing to get through World War I and we never even made it to the separate floor that details 1918-present. Which is some of the most interesting stuff. Oops!! I consoled myself with the fact that we’d done a lot of 20th century historical stuff the previous day.


We made one last walk through the Museum Island/Berlin Cathedral area, admiring the huge advertisements for the X-Men movie on the way. If the weather had been about 8 degrees warmer it would have been lovely to just lounge in the grass, but it was simply too cold to enjoy ourselves outside for too long. So we headed back to the hostel for some R&R before dinner. That was clutch because we got a good restaurant tip from some other guys in our room: a cheap Vietnamese place around the corner, which ended up being really good! We also took advantage of a stellar Ladies’ Night deal at the hostel bar: I got a free shot of Jägermeister (which I actually do like… probably the only liquor that is semi-enjoyable as a shot) plus a pitcher of Tequila Sunrise for a steal! It was a great way to end our time in Berlin for sure… making up for all the sunlight we hadn’t seen while we were there.

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

To be continued…

pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 3, part 2, aka lots of thinking in paris

[Longest title ever! I challenge any forthcoming comic book movies to take this record from me!]

On Wednesday, we walked quickly down to the river to avoid the impending rain… but were only partially successful. We chose a path that took us past the Opera again, but this time down the high-end shopping street at Rue de la Paix and Place de Vendome… we fit right in in our rolled-up pants and rain gear!


We quickly enjoyed a stroll through the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre, and then picked up the pace for another brisk walk along the river, this time to the Pont de l’Alma, home of the Museum of the Paris Sewers! I had had this on my list since my Greece conference, where a presenter had mentioned the wonderful sewer exhibit in Paris. And since I’m a water nerd and Laura is a chemical engineer, this was right up our alley — not to mention perfect for an incredibly rainy day. The museum was full of school children — several classes’ worth on field trips. One teacher we met had lived in the Woodlands and actually knew Sugar Land when we told her where we were from! Small world.


The sewers and sewer exhibit was fascinating. There was a mix of technical (seeing the various techniques, current and historical, used to clean and maintain the sewers), historical (learning about the development and growth of the Paris sewer and water system), hands-on (actually seeing black and greywater channels and pipes), and interdisciplinary aspects (a fascinating exhibit about the growth of Paris and the impact on the city’s sewer, waste, and environmental management development; as well as several homages to Les Miserables).

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

I loved learning about Napoleon’s contributions to the wastewater system: at the beginning of his reign, one of the emperor’s ministers advised him to work on providing a stable source of clean water for Paris as a way to make a lasting impact on the city; later, in his last memoir, Napoleon acknowledged that his development of Paris’ sewer system had been his proudest accomplishment! He really knew what was up. I love learning about the pivotal role of water management to different civilizations, especially since most of us totally take it for granted. The people in power always know it’s important… it’s in the job description!

It was still raining after we’d finished our sewer tour–perfect museum weather–so we headed to the Army Museum next. We didn’t have much planned for that afternoon, so we speculated that we could afford to spend several hours there … and we did!! The museum covers a total of about 700 years, and it is all fascinating… particularly the narrative of the end of the 19th century and how European power grabs led to the First World War. That’s a time in history I don’t feel I’ve ever learned enough about.

The history of the building was also fascinating: it’s called the Hotel des Invalides, as it was built by Napoleon as a hostel/convalescent home for injured soldiers of the French army. It is absolutely gorgeous!


[a few nerdy asides. to carry you through this part, consider watching this in honor of the sewer tour-army museum combo]

It was fascinating to read about how Bismarck, the Prussian leader who helped to unite Germany after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, worked to prevent feuding alliances in Europe: if France and Russia became strong allies, and the Balkans still struggled to maintain peace after the Ottoman Empire broke up, Germany would be surrounded by turmoil and divided between its French border and its Russian border… inevitably fighting a war on two fronts. Once Bismarck died, the other European leaders disregarded his advice and what happened several decades later? A war on two fronts for Germany. And things just went downhill from there.

We were also able to walk ourselves through the history of the French Revolution a bit more during that part of the museum; I know a good bit from history and literature classes over the years, and I tried my best to explain to Laura the Engineer 😉 but some of those classes were a while ago now, so it was interesting to read about the different stages of Revolution as we progressed through the 18th and 19th centuries in the museum. It really makes you glad to be an American and thankful that our Revolution “took,” so to speak.

As we entered the Napoleon/imperial epoch, I was also taken by the apparent parallels between Napoleon and Hitler. Both took power during a turbulent time in their country’s history and used patriotism to gain the support of the people; both sought to conquer all of Europe, causing warfare and violence along the way, and met their downfall in Russia. Yet one is regarded ambivalently, as a powerful yet possibly oppressive emperor who did lots of good things for France but maybe could have cooled it with his ambitions of expansion, while the other is the most evil figure in modern history. I don’t want to defend Hitler, and obviously there are several dimensions of “human rights violation” and “racism” that set him apart from Napoleon, but the difference in PR between the two was intriguing to me as I noticed the parallels between them.

Finally, it was interesting and amusing to learn about the World Wars from a French perspective. There were several funny little quips that seemed to over-inflate the importance/adequacy of the French war effort… but maybe that was just our American bias 😉

[Nerdiness over]

Of course, the Army Museum is also the home of Napoleon’s tomb, so that was cool.


Once we finished at the museum, we were intellectually and physically exhausted – and our feet HURT. So we found a little café near the museum and treated ourselves to coffee and creme brulee… just the perfect indulgence for a rainy and museum-filled day!

Our second indulgence was an extra Metro ride. We had found a restaurant in the 13th Arr. that got rave reviews: it was supposed to have amazing food typical of the Basque region (near Spain) at a student-friendly budget. So we splurged and were rewarded for our risk, because the restaurant was amazing. We both had duck, because we figured we’d go for the option that isn’t typically found in the US. Mine was served with a Rocquefort cheese sauce, which I had had in Spain when I was there and really loved. It was delightful in France, as well! 🙂 My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We also enjoyed some delicious wine. The restaurant got really busy shortly after we arrived, so they seated another guest at our table, and it was really interesting talking to him. He was from Israel, an animation student a bit older than us, and it was cool to talk to him about his travels and his opinions about animated movies. He listed Sleeping Beauty as one of his favorites, which made me proud of my taste in Disney, since that is one of the best in my opinion!

Back at the hostel, we enjoyed more chocolates and Friends episodes after planning our excursion for the next day… a trip to Versailles!!


When I went to Versailles with my family in 2001, the biggest story of the trip was me getting lost on the Metro on the way back. All I wanted from this trip was for it to be less eventful and I think we accomplished that! It was raining — of course — when we arrived, but my free entry to the palace made me feel better about the terrible weather! The palace is magnificent of course… we paced ourselves a bit oddly, spending a lot of time in the exhibit at the beginning talking about the history of the palace, which kings built which parts, when different renovations were done, etc etc. Which is interesting and all, but… you will never find a museum talking about my landscaping decisions at my vacation house. And that’s all I’m saying.

So maybe I was a bit tired out from that, but nevertheless the furnished parts of the palace are gorgeous! I guess I was surprised at how heavily Greek and Roman mythology themes figured into the decor, but the idea of decorating one’s home allegorically is fascinating! It was interesting that the audio guide didn’t mention the Treaty of Versailles at all in the Hall of Mirrors, but I knew about it anyway so I suppose I win. Do I sound jaded? I’m sorry. I sound totally jaded. I would use the excuse of “but I’ve just been to SOOO many royal palaces in Europe… Munich, Würzburg, Vienna… how is one supposed to have energy for them all?” but come on. Worst problem ever. 😉 Maybe I just had museum fatigue at the end of a jam-packed week in Paris!


The good news is that by the time we had finished with our tour of the palace, the sun had come out!! So we were able to walk through the gardens with blue skies overhead. That was just wonderful. The gardens are just massive!! And the mythology tropes persist in the decor (the fountains and the naming of things and such). It was so nice to celebrate the return of the sun in such a gorgeous location.


We took a little walk through the town of Versailles after leaving the gardens… we got a coffee at a little café and I went to buy stamps for my postcards and we even saw the architecture school where my Aunt Mary Beth, blog commenter extraordinaire, spent a year during college! I hadn’t really thought of Versailles being a “town” outside of the palace (though I knew that it was) but it seemed like a cute little place. I’m sure the locals are tired of palace tourists, though!

On our way back to the hostel, we grabbed some pastries we’d had our eyes on all week, which we then ate during a quick siesta. Our plan was to spend the evening in Montmartre, which we hadn’t seen much of outside of our hostel and the Metro station. So after a little rest, we headed up to Sacre Coeur, which is up a deceptively high hill!! It is absolutely gorgeous. Just totally striking.


We decided on a whim to climb up to the top of the Dome, which was incredible. You already have a great view of the city (sans the Eiffel Tower) from the overlook at the foot of the church, and from the Dome you can see EVERYTHING! It was just gorgeous.



We descended just in time for Mass, which was beautiful. There are (Augustinian? Benedictine? I think Benedictine) sisters who live at the convent next door and they sang Evening prayer and at Mass. It’s interesting to go to Mass in a language you don’t understand… on the one hand, you could use it as an excuse to zone out, but on the other hand, it can be an opportunity to deepen your prayer because you have to really concentrate on what is going on, and in the end it’s your belief in what actually happens at the Mass that determines your experience… that doesn’t depend on the language at all!

Anyway, we finally got our crepe fix after Mass when I spotted a little creperie on our descent from Sacre Coeur. It was really delicious… especially the very simple lemon crepe we had for dessert.

Afterwards, we went on a little stroll through the neighborhood looking at souvenirs and ended up at Moulin Rouge, our last sight of the week. We didn’t see a show or anything; we just wanted to see what all the fuss was about from the outside. We spotted some mini horses being brought in, ostensibly for that evening’s show! Then, after an awkward walk through the red light/sketchy district full of sex shops and burlesque clubs, we made it back home and called it an early night…. since we both had very early trains/flights in the morning!

moulin rouge

It’s already been 2 weeks since I got back from Paris and I am really nostalgic for the time Laura and I spent there. It was such a lovely week seeing lovely sights in the best company… the city is so full of life, there’s so much to discover, and everything is so pretty… even when it’s kind of ugly. I really do think I could live in Paris (but maybe just short-term), a distinction I’ve only awarded to a few cities I’ve visited. I do hope I get to return someday 🙂

pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 3

Laura’s and my last stop on our trip together was Paris. I insisted on this once I realized how close Bruges and Paris are. I had been there when I was 10 with my family, but somehow that was 13 years ago (!) and what could beat a trip to Paris in May with your best friend? It turns out, not much. Laura was unsure how she would like the city, saying that it seemed to her most people either love or hate it… and she didn’t know which category she’d fall into. But by the end of the week, we were both hooked!

The start of our stay, however, was less than auspicious. Laura had a Eurail pass for her 3 weeks in Europe, and she learned early on that the pass isn’t quite as easy and foolproof as they make it out to be, and she would need to reserve a seat in many cases (and pay extra for the reservation in most cases, blah). So we checked on a train out of Paris once we arrived, only to find that there weren’t any Eurail options!! Nightmare. I convinced her to forget about it for the time being (promising to dedicate our evening internet time to figuring out a solution, of course) in order to enjoy our first afternoon in Paris.

Then we got to our hostel and the lock to our room was broken, which was also just wonderful but thankfully got resolved relatively quickly…. and we were off!!! Eventually. We also had issues with the Metro system, because the machine wouldn’t accept my debit card to buy tickets, and Laura’s Eurail pass would clearly not suffice as a ticket as she had hoped. SO we were forced into the best decision of the week: forget the Metro and just walk everywhere!! We were staying in/near Montmartre in the 9th Arrondissement (my favorite French word btw), a few blocks south of Sacre Coeur, aka really far north, but the walk to the river and all the good stuff only took about 35 minutes… plus we got to see some really great stuff along the way! We took a different route every time.

I think this may come in handy for orientation...

I think this may come in handy for orientation…

This first walk took us straight to the Louvre!! It was such a rush to be there–honestly it felt surreal. I remembered going to the Louvre in 2001, and it was crazy to be somewhere “familiar” but feel like I’m living a different life now, on my second visit. How different I am now at 23 than I was at 10! And of course actually seeing the big, gorgeous palace-turned-museum and the famous pyramids and arch and gardens and our first view of the Eiffel Tower! It was all surreal and thrilling. So, it’s good to know that my 9 months (!) in Europe haven’t turned me into a jaded asshole, at least 🙂


From the Louvre we walked to Notre Dame–our goal had been to make it there by the time it closed and we did, by an hour! Just enough time to make the full rounds of all the side chapels and pray Evening Prayer there at the church — of course all in French, but absolutely beautiful nonetheless. In a different, less-rushed world, we would have stayed for Mass afterwards, but we had more to accomplish, so we bowed out. After a walk around the church to check out the Flying Buttresses, we made our way to the Parthenon and Sorbonne/Latin Quarter area.

It was awesome having a lot of little prayerful experiences throughout the trip. Later on Monday, after Evening Prayer at Notre Dame, we stopped in at St. Germaine on our way to the Eiffel Tower where they were having Adoration... attended by a surprising/inspiring number of young people!

It was awesome having a lot of little prayerful experiences throughout the trip. Later on Monday, after Evening Prayer at Notre Dame, we stopped in at St. Germaine on our way to the Eiffel Tower where they were having Adoration… attended by a surprising/inspiring number of young people!


The Parthenon is unfortunately under construction, but we enjoyed walking around and imagining actually being a university student in Paris–inconceivable! We bought a cheap bottle of wine (we both prefer white but the only twist-top bottle was red, so we made do), some fruit and cheese, and set out for our next destination: Luxembourg Gardens, another of the very few places I have memories of from my last trip to Paris. It was really hot by this point so we sat in the shade to enjoy our nectarines and views of the park.


We had ambitions of making it to the Eiffel Tower by sunset to sit on the lawn and enjoy the evening view while drinking wine, so at this point (probably about 7:30?) we decided we should start walking. We lamented that the walk would probably take “another 30 minutes” (soooo long). We were at Jardin du Luxembourg and wanted to make it to Tour Eiffel (see map) by walking along the Seine… and we were in for an epic journey, because in the end the walk took probably an hour and 15 minutes at least. Now, looking at the map, we could have made a really quick trip of it by taking a direct route through 6 and 7,  but we did get to see a remarkable number of sights from the outside, including the Louvre (again), the Musee d’Orsay, Alexander Bridge, and Hotel des Invalides/Army Museum, before making it to the Eiffel Tower… right at sunset! It was a long walk but we timed it so perfectly.

At the Alexander Bridge

At the Alexander Bridge. This day was the “test run” for my chambray + dress outfit and I think it’s a keeper

After taking a gratuitous number of photos, we settled in on the lawn, poured ourselves some wine in plastic cups (always classy) and watched the sky get darker and the Tower eventually light up! There was a bit of excitement near us when a man snatched an (American) girl’s phone, another lady saw him do it, and all the guys selling wine and champagne and whatever dropped their wares and chased the thief down, and then apparently proceeded to beat up on him. Then they carried him out and the girl got her phone back… it was a very interesting study of human behavior… but anyway, the sun set, the tower lit up beautifully, and were treated to a bit of a light show because they made the tower sparkle with flashing lights!! It was beautiful and perfect. I think if I had only 1 day in Paris (really only half a day) and I spent it like this, I would be totally content with my life. We took the Metro back to our hostel after committing ourselves to riding only once per day–a savings of about 5 euro per day!


Day 2 started at the train station buying Laura a ticket to Bacharach by way of Cologne for Friday (screw you, Eurail, why are you so complicated and expensive??), but after that little nuisance, we once again walked to the river, this time by way of the Opera, La Madeleine (the original! Aka a gorgeous church dedicated to Mary Magdelene), and the Place de Concorde.

I thought the Opera was gorgeous... one of the many benefits of not relying on the Metro was finding hidden gems we wouldn't have otherwise seen!

I thought the Opera was gorgeous… one of the many benefits of not relying on the Metro was finding hidden gems we wouldn’t have otherwise seen!

[I wish I could show you everything but my data storage is reaching its limit and I only have so much time!! Plus I took over 300 pictures in Paris alone… how to choose!]

At this point, we took a little detour at the Petit Palais, which we had read we could get into for free. It was nice, but I didn’t have much patience for art museums… plus, the most interesting-sounding exhibit (a display of Paris in 1900!) had an entrance fee and a long line. But the building was gorgeous, and after a short stop we were on our way down Champs d’Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe.


About halfway, it started POURING!! right as we got hungry, so we opened my umbrella, sat on a bench, and chowed down on baguettes, hummus, and nectarines. When it finally stopped, we kept walking to the Arc, finally figured out how to cross the street to get to it (underground of course!), and escaped from more rain under its protection while eating eclairs. It was a very Parisian experience, albeit a bit stereotypical 🙂


Besides our partial Metro boycott, our other saving grace budget-wise in Paris was buying grocery store food to eat on the go… baguettes, cheese, hummus, fruit… occasionally we treated ourselves to pastries as a reward for our frugality!!

The next object on our agenda was a visit to the Musee d’Orsay, which is located in an old train station and houses art from the 19th and 20th centuries. We picked it, at the recommendation of a few trustworthy people, over the Louvre for our Paris art museum experience… and it paid off! It was also a score that I, as an EU resident under 26, could get in for free! [On this basis, we also resolved to see the Army Museum, which we passed on the way, the next day. It was free for me and a good enough value for Laura that, especially because of the rain, we thought it would be worth it.]


Orsay was a bit of an overwhelming experience, and I can’t even imagine how crazy the Louvre would be in terms of wanting to see everything but not having enough time! I loved seeing the Impressionists’ and Post-Impressionists’ work, and also tracking societal change through the decades as styles and subjects evolved. We spent a good 2-2.5 hours there, and stayed until closing, and still felt we’d had to rush at some parts!! Definitely worth it but plan on spending a LONG time there!

We’d found a creperie we wanted to try between the Army Museum and Eiffel Tower, but when we got there it was closed between lunch and dinner and given that it was still raining…. we settled for a little cafe/brewery-type place nearby and enjoyed some French food (quiche for me, duck for Laura) and a bit of respite from the rain. It was a really good thing we’d pushed through to make it to the Eiffel Tower that first night, as it would rain for basically the rest of our stay. After our daily metro ride back to Montmartre, we dried off, got in our pajamas, and drank wine and ate chocolate while watching Friends episodes which I am eternally grateful that I have on my computer! They have served me well during my travels.

[This post got really long really quickly. Part 2 of Part 3 to follow!]

pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 1


And yes, while in Amsterdam we did eat pancakes… every morning for breakfast! Dutch pancakes are delicious with Nutella.

Please forgive me for that terrible title, but once I thought of it, I had to.

A for Annie and Amsterdam!

A for Annie and Amsterdam!

Part 1 of Annie and Laura’s Excellent Adventure found us in Amsterdam for just about 2 days. I took a night train (my first ever) to meet Laura at the Amsterdam train station at about 10 AM on Thursday morning. The train left at about 9 from Dresden, and while it was perfect timing to arrive shortly after Laura’s transatlantic flight, I was too cheap to book a bed reservation so I endured several painful hours of sleeping in odd positions, and I have vowed to never do a night train again before I have the necessary $$$ to get an actual bed!

We started our trip auspiciously, kicking off our pattern of being very ambitious on our first day in every city; just doing as much as humanly possible! The walk to our hostel was long but it took us through the heart of Amsterdam and gave us a taste of what was to come. We had to wait a few hours to check into our hostel, so we ate a long-awaited “breakfast” after not having eaten for way too long on both of our parts. Then we explored the nearby Vondelpark, home of one of several “I Amsterdam” signs:



After checking in, we hit the streets hard! We followed Rick Steves’ walking tour — but backwards, because it ended at the Rijksmuseum, which was very nearby to our hostel. This led to some fun “wait, left or right? Did we already pass it??” moments, but overall we were able to see so much.

The Rijksmuseum itself is striking; there we saw the “more famous” I Amsterdam as well as our only Holland tulips sighting!


Of course the canals are striking and unique. There are several large, bustling squares full of shops, restaurants, and “coffee shops” interspersed, and as you wind your way through the streets you are just as likely to stumble upon a flower stand as you are a marijuana-dispersing shop or a 500-year-old church.  One of the defining features of the landscape, besides the canals, are the old towers which used to be parts of the city walls, but which now stand out as the tallest structures in the city for the most part.


One interesting concept we first encountered in Amsterdam and also later in Bruges was a “Begijnhof,” living communities which used to house groups consecrated Catholic women who weren’t members of religious orders. The Amsterdam Begijnhof was very hidden, and on our way to finding it we stumbled into probably the most beautiful or my favorite church I’ve ever seen in Europe. It was built in a Gothic style but was lighter inside than most Gothic churches because of the bright colors of its decor. Eventually we did find the Begijnhof and we were able to go to Adoration for a little bit in the church there.


After we finished half of Rick Steves’ tour, we caught a boat tour through the canals which was really great. It was by no means a comprehensive view of the city, but it offered a very unique perspective to the city and allowed us to hear about the transformation of Amsterdam’s layout throughout the centuries: which canal houses the richest residents (and the mayor), which bridges are the oldest, how to distinguish between gables shapes, etc.


We had a goal of getting to the Anne Frank House 1.5-2 hours before it closed, so we headed in that direction with the idea of eating dinner along the way, which proved…. challenging. We eventually found an affordable Indonesian option, which was really delicious, surprisingly! And we made it to the Anne Frank House in time to make the full rounds.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the House, which is definitely one of the more famous attractions in Amsterdam and one that I have been aware of since I was very small and my dad visited it (and brought back souvenirs for us). On the one hand, I find Anne Frank’s story incredibly inspiring and intriguing, and I’ve read her diary several times. On the other hand, what could really  be conveyed about her story and the history of the Holocaust just through an ordinary house? Also, through my experiences seeing concentration camps and other WWII/Holocaust sites, I was familiar with the odd sensation of viewing something historically tragic yet being unable to process, or indeed access, the “appropriate” emotions to go along with them. But anyway, the Anne Frank House was really interesting and, in an odd way, moving.

The bottom levels of the warehouse, Mr. Frank’s place of business, are furnished in approximations of how they would have been, and you can see displays detailing the history of the family and the business: when the Franks emigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, how the different colleagues came to work there and befriend each other, how the German invasion impacted the daily lives of Dutch Jews, and how the Franks’ and Van Pels’ hiding was coordinated years in advance. There are also several videos, accounts years later from the different non-Jewish coworkers who helped to hide the Franks about what happened in those years. One of the most chilling things on the lower levels was hearing the ceiling above squeak under the footfalls of the other museum visitors; how easy it must have been for the hide-outs in the Annex to slip up and alert a warehouse worker!

The humble exterior

The humble exterior

Upstairs, in the secret annex (stepping through the secret bookcase, the original, was a surreal moment), there are no furnishings, though before entering we were able to see a scale model of how the rooms would have looked in the 40s. Being physically in the spaces was another experience of that surreal detachment. I could appreciate that a young Anne had taken it upon herself to decorate her walls, and I noticed how tiny Peter’s staircase room seemed (but noted that he was the only one with his very own room), and it was obvious how oppressive it must have been to spend two whole years in this tiny space with no sunlight and minimal connections to the outside world.

But it wasn’t until the very end of the exhibit, reading about Otto Frank’s survival of the concentration camp and his single-minded determination to get Anne’s diary published, that it hit me: this man sacrificed everything, his whole life, to protect his family, to get them into hiding, to save them from the inevitable. And he was the only one who survived. What a heartbreaking thought. But what an amazing testament to the impact of a single person’s life on the world! He did what was at his disposal: finding a publisher and an audience for his young daughter’s diaries. What a small task, but one unique to him, that only he had the power to accomplish! And see how he changed the world through that act of love.

On Friday, we got going bright and early thanks to a somewhat unwelcome wakeup call in our hostel room. We resumed the Rick Steves tour where we had left off: we saw the National Monument which recognizes victims of the Holocaust / WWII, as well as the New Church (not gonna try the Dutch spelling… I can almost understand spoken Dutch and reading it is fine but spelling is just a totally different animal), an old, ornate pedestrian market turned shopping center, and one of the most intriguing finds of the day, a “hidden church” from the times of Protestant oppression of Catholic practices, still in operation, right across from a McDonalds!


A selection of Amsterdam's gorgeous history: this is the pedestrian shopping center

A selection of Amsterdam’s gorgeous history: this is the pedestrian shopping center

And the frankly odd National Monument

And the frankly odd National Monument

We made our way back to the central station to check out trains to Bruges the next day and accidentally wandered into the Red Light District on the way back before realizing where we were, but I guess that’s something we can check off the list!

At this point, we had barreled through so many of the Amsterdam “musts” that we had a bit more freedom to follow our whims. And you know this was the ultimate “girls’ week(end)” when our first “whim” was to go on a free tour of a diamond workshop!!!


It really was incredible. Laura listed it as one of her favorite things of the whole week, and I’m not one to complain about spending an hour looking at beautiful, shiny things! We learned all about the 4 C’s of diamonds and got to see sample gems cut at the workshop there in Amsterdam, some of which were worth thousands of Euros! Then we saw some “finished” jewelry pieces and even got to try some of them on.


Then we wandered to the southeast portion of town, which is now considered the “green museum quarter” (because of the many parks and museums) and was also historically a predominantly Jewish area. We enjoyed delicious sandwiches right near the Dutch Theater, which is a gorgeous building with a chilling past, as it was used as a mass deportation site during the German occupation. After exploring the surrounding area, we took a little rest in a nearby park along a canal.

The Dutch Theater

The Dutch Theater


We stocked up on grocery store bread, cheese, fruit, and several discounted packages of Stroopwafels, which are as far as I’m concerned the Netherlands’ greatest contribution to humanity, and ended our second amazing day in Amsterdam in the Vondelpark with a picnic.

Two days seemed short to me, and I could have spent more time in Amsterdam, I think. It seems like such a small town — and really, it is… I think I remember hearing that fewer than a million people actually live in the city? Some things about it… the ever-present weed smell, for one… are not my favorite, but what a charming, eclectic, and beautiful city Amsterdam is! I am certainly glad to have experienced it.


And with one of my best friends, no less!


Next… Bruges!

hanging with the hamburgers

(because that’s what people from Hamburg are called. It gets better; people from Frankfurt are Frankfurters.)

To round out my March of constant travel (excepting one birthday week in Dresden which I still need to write about), I took the bus to Hamburg on Friday to meet my dad, who was just finishing up a fortnight in Europe. He was like a dang college kid taking the train all over Switzerland, Germany, France, and England! I’m glad we got to meet up, because it was really great to spend the weekend together, and neither of us had ever been to Hamburg… we both loved it!

Sailboats and a view from across the Alster

Sailboats and a view from across the Alster to our hotel area

My dad was surprised to learn that Hamburg is actually Germany’s 2nd largest city after Berlin. It’s also one of three city-states (the third being Bremen). I’m just shocked, after having seen how lovely it is, that more Americans don’t choose Hamburg as a main destination in Germany, because let’s face it, Munich isn’t that great. (Unpopular opinion; no shame.)

It took us all weekend to sort of get a geographical feel of the city… it’s just not easy given the 4021 bodies of water. (Not an exact number.) Did you know that there are more bridges in Hamburg than in Venice?


On Friday night, we set out in search of a delicious seafood meal but it turns out that all the cool places are full on Friday evening! Instead we settled for some meatless Italian and then made our way to the basement of city hall, which apparently houses a bar! It was probably the most historic place I’ve ever imbibed.

Hamburg's famous Rathaus

Hamburg’s famous Rathaus

We took a (loooooong) guided walking tour on Saturday that taught us everything we could have ever wanted to know about Hamburg’s history… its founding by Charlemagne and subsequent Christianization, the importance of its harbor to North Sea trade with England, its membership in the capitalist Hanseatic League, its destruction by fire in the 19th century and firebombing in the 20th century, and its current drawn out and super expensive construction of the world’s best-acoustically-engineered symphony hall…

A monument in the town center memorializing the 40,000 Hamburgers who fought and died in World War I.

A monument in the town center memorializing the 40,000 Hamburgers who fought and died in World War I.

St. Michael's Church, which was destroyed during WWII and is now preserved in its damaged state as a monument.

St. Michael’s Church, which was destroyed during WWII and is now preserved in its damaged state as a monument.

The Chile-Haus, a "brick expressionist" building that looks like a ship and was built by a man who made his fortune trading salt-peter with South America.

The Chile-Haus, a “brick expressionist” building that looks like a ship and was built by a man who made his fortune trading salt-peter from South America.

In the Speicherstadt, the world's largest contiguous warehouse complex

In the Speicherstadt, the world’s largest contiguous warehouse complex

We then took to the harbor, the city’s pride and joy (and paycheck). We dined on the rooftop terrace of the Blockbräu brewery, enjoying the gorgeous view of the harbor. We forewent the hour-long, not-free harbor tour for the 10-minute, free-with-transit-card ferry ride. We wondered where all these people had come from and where they could have possibly been headed.


Throughout the course of the weekend, we enjoyed several leisurely walks through Hamburg’s biggest and most famous park, Planten un Blomen. Some parts were more scenic than others…



A huge, imposing, and frighteningly Stalin-esque statue of Bismarck, keeping the peace

A huge, imposing, and frighteningly Stalin-esque statue of Bismarck, keeping the peace

Some of the best scenery, in my opinion, could be found after nightfall on the Alster in Hamburg’s city center. The lights reflecting on the water were just gorgeous. Unfortunately, the lights reflecting on the water were also difficult to capture with my abused little point-and-shoot:

A shot taken during the day

A shot taken during the day

And at night

And at night

On Sunday we took a tour of the Rathaus (town hall), which is a ridiculously large and extravagant building to house the government of a city/state of only 1.8 million people. Miraculously, the building is all original as it was not destroyed at all during the war (even though over 65% of the entire city was wiped out)! Incredible. The rooms that we saw were intricately decorated according to different themes: the Imperial Room honoring Wilhelm II, the Room of the Republics depicting the famous republican city-states that Hamburg strove to emulate; the Phoenix Room symbolizing Hamburg’s rising from the ashes after the Great Fire (and later the Great War[s]). Due to some scheduling/Daylight Savings snafus (probably) we took the German tour and I got to flex my translating muscles to keep Dad clued in.



We attended an English Mass in a beautiful little outlying neighborhood before heading to Trip Advisor’s #1 recommended attraction, which had also been recommended to us by Grandma Lord, the Miniature Wonderland Model Train Emporium of Super Extravagant and Unnecessary Detail (I may have taken some liberties with the name). You could have spent seven hours in there, but we blazed through in 1.5. It’s three stories of tiny little worlds created with model figures and trains and plains and cars and fire trucks and what have you. They’ve recreated entire cities, states, and “countries” (the US was Cape Canaveral, Las Vegas, Sedona/the Grand Canyon?, Mount Rushmore, and an unidentified Christmasy mountain town. Close enough). The vehicles actually move, the lights change to create day and night, and there’s even an entire operational “airport”. Absolutely ridiculous!

The tiny model of the Miniature Wonderlands building itself as part of the larger Hamburg recreation...

The tiny model of the Miniature Wonderlands building itself as part of the larger Hamburg recreation…

I won't be returning to Neuschwanstein this year, so this was close enough.

I won’t be returning to Neuschwanstein this year, so this was close enough.

After re-charging with some beer and bratwurst (totally stereotypical, ugh), we did the obligatory Reeperbahn/St. Pauli thing and headed to Beatles-Platz, where the boys themselves are immortalized…


John, Paul, George, Ringo, and another Paul

We did a quick lap around the block in St. Pauli and decided to get out of there ASAP, heading back to our beloved Hafen City neighborhood to enjoy dinner in an old shipping warehouse that’s more slanted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!


Overall, I really did love Hamburg! It’s probably claimed a Top 3 spot among my favorite German cities (don’t ask me for my final list, I’m still formulating it) and I have no idea how I’ve lived a cumulative 10 months in Germany in my life and never been before! It has a kind of US-East-Coast vibe with a little London thrown in, but at the same time the whole town is totally relaxed. Our tour guide noted that it’s his favorite city to give tours of because he doesn’t have to compete with the traffic volume-wise. The history of the city is incredible (I couldn’t totally do it justice with my limited blogging patience) and all of the different waterfront environments are just gorgeous! In case you put any stock in my travel recommendations, know that Hamburg gets two big thumbs up (and my dad loved it too so he’ll corroborate).

And now, to hunker down in Dresden (also a Top 3 city, naturally) and get as much research done as I can before my next adventure!

embracing my inner nerd in patras

(Alternate title: I Would Write Something Profound About the Highs and Lows of the “Academic Lyfe” if I Weren’t So Dang Tired From Traveling.)


The reason for my trip to Greece was a conference that I found sometime last semester, hosted by the International Water Association (of which I am now a student member). The symposium’s official topic was “Water, Wastewater and the Environment: Traditions and Culture.”  The themes of the conference focused on looking at the water management technology and infrastructure of the past as a way of learning lessons for the future. 

Overall, the symposium was… somewhat subpar. The organization of the weekend was not great to say the least, and I felt like a bit of an outsider since I’m only a student and I wasn’t presenting a paper (as I learned that probably 90% of the attendees were). I got tired really quickly of having to explain to everyone that I met that no, I was not presenting, and yes, I am only a pre-master’s student on a gap year. (And also yes, I am from America, even though, yes, my name tag says Germany.)

However, I was able to hear a few very interesting presentations, meet some friendly people, and see some of Patras, Greece’s 3rd largest city.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

My nerdy little Plan II heart was definitely right at home during a few moments of the conference. The first key-note speaker (and the only one who did not read verbatim off of cards or fail to show up) gave a great talk about the detriment of “environmentalist” pathos to the task of natural resource provision and conservation, which I thought was on point.

In the last session of the first day, I heard a talk from a PhD student at the University of Patras about using mathematical optimization algorithms to solve political conflicts about water allocation! Can you even imagine? What an exciting concept!

The first talk I heard on the second day was a wide, sweeping history of wastewater management trends and developments throughout history–nearly 4,000 years of history!–leading to today’s most cutting-edge treatments, like a reverse-osmosis procedure that Singapore is starting to implement as they attempt to create a self-sufficient water supply!


The woman who presented on the history of wastewater management was the only other American I met during the weekend, a college professor from Connecticut. (Apparently, she’s originally from near Scranton, PA, probably within 15 minutes of where my grandparents live… Die Welt ist ein Dorf!) We also had some mutual colleagues/acquaintances/people I met once when they were guest speakers in a class I was taking, from Austin, so that was cool.

I really enjoyed talking with her because she was basically the only person all weekend who actually understood me, maybe because of the cultural differences between American and European academia. The idea of changing fields, like I’m currently in the process of doing, is almost unheard of in Europe, in my experience. So it was encouraging to talk to someone who thought it was great (instead of totally weird) that I, a rookie, would attend a conference just out of curiosity! 

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

(Also, I think Europeans have a different conception of space. I, as an American, wanted to take the opportunity to travel to Greece while I am already in Europe, because who knows when I would otherwise get to go? To someone who lives in Europe, Dresden to Patras is a loooong way to go for a conference you aren’t presenting at. Which, you know, they have a point. But the city of Houston is probably bigger than all of Greece so it’s all relative.)

Despite the frustrations of the weekend, like dealing with Greek lack of organization and having to miss Mass on Sunday, the conference gave me a lot to think about regarding my future career, and getting to hear the talks actually energized me to finish strong with my research this year! I’m toying with the idea of presenting my research at the DAAD conference I’m attending in July… we’ll see how that goes!


the dos and don’ts of athens


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


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.


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…


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


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.


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.