Dare You Go to Dergano

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I’ve mentioned several times in my posts that being abroad sometimes inspires you to do spontaneous things that you wouldn’t do normally. So imagine one of your friends who you have only known for about 2 weeks walks into the kitchen on a late September night saying she has found round-trip flights to Milan, for less than $80 a pop for a weekend in November. Traveling to Italy cheaply and making travel plans so early in the semester with new friends sounds pretty tempting, am I right?

September, October, and November flew by (the two weeklong travel breaks we had definitely made the time pass a little faster); we all were pretty drained from all the traveling we’d been doing all semester (literally traveling every two weeks); and we were over-stimulated from all the experiences we’ve had while traveling and in Copenhagen. As nice as it would have been to play the role of homebody for the weekend, I was nevertheless thrilled for our weekend trip to Milan. It would be my first time in Italy.

And for those that have never been to Italy, the thought of going there conjures up some pretty picturesque images: pigeons flying around neoclassical architecture in a grand piazza; waiters standing outside authentic Italian cafes begging passer byes to savor some vino and maybe an antipasto; gelato and coffee houses freely spreading mouth-watering aromas all around the city; regal canals providing smile-inducing views to any visitor or local. Granted, Milan isn’t Italy’s most popular city, but the affordability of the trip and the thought of getting to eat authentic Italian food was enough motivation to pack my bags and be at the Copenhagen airport on a cold, rainy night waiting patiently for my flight to Italy.

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I’ve managed to have a lot of luck while traveling Europe to avoid being deceived by tourist attractions, getting ripped off, or feeling genuinely unsafe. Let’s just say the weekend in Milan provided many of the experiences I intended on avoiding. Within seconds of getting to a metro station, these men who spoke fluent English and wore jackets that gave my friends and I the slight impression they worked at the metro station showed us how to purchase metro tickets on the ticket machine. It became very obvious that they indeed did not work for said metro station after asking for a “tip” for their assistance and then attempting to steal the change I had received after buying ticket. Oh, but it gets worse…once we finally reach the metro stop by our hostel, we walk down what must have felt like the longest eerie street only to reach a run-down hostel with a bolted gate and a guard dog instead of a security guard. Granted, the walk would’ve probably been much less disconcerting had each of us not had all of our valuables with us in a single bag (unfortunately, Easy Jet only lets you take one small carry on bag onto the flight—no wonder its flights are so cheap).

After a very eye-opening first night in Milan, I was still hopeful that a day full of sightseeing would keep up our spirits. And to some degree, it was true. Saturday morning, nonetheless, was not devoid of mishaps. To avoid spending a lot of money on transportation, we planned out the day, so we’d take the metro to our first stop and then hit all the tourist attractions on the walk back to the hostel. Considering the weather was nice (at least relative to Copenhagen), we figured walking about 4 miles wouldn’t be too bad. Our first stop was the Naviglio Grande, this nice shopping area around Milan’s central canal. We must have ended up in the wrong part of the canal…because there was no canal. Well, there were remnants of a canal, but there was no water. It was all dried up. And that confused us. Instead of trying to figure out what went wrong in our planning (we all have a lot of experience figuring out European cities just from so much traveling during the semester), we just gave up and decided to head over to our next destiation—Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

I found it quite random that the “Last Supper” was in Milan. The painting is located inside this very pretty church a short walk from the Piazza del Duomo—right in the touristy heart of the city. There were very few people around, so we found ourselves at the front of the line to see this Da Vinci masterpiece. Upon approaching the desk for tickets, the receptionist interrupts us with a mere two words, “Reservations Required,” that couldn’t have been more a tribute to our lack of planning. But in our defense, there was literally no one in this church, but rules are rules, and they couldn’t let us in unless we had made reservations at least a week in advance. So no “Last Supper” for us. But, hey, I still got to have my pic with Leonardo’s work.

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I’m making this sound like the trip from hell, but that definitely wasn’t the case. Our day ended on a great note. We eventually made it to the Duomo—the third largest church in Christendom. No matter where you go in Italy, there’s bound to be some world-famous church. After walking around this beautiful church, we decided to pay the small fee to climb to the top of the church. And that was incredibly memorable. As opposed to other churches that let you climb to the top, the path on the Duomo’s roof walks you through the architecture—letting you see the magnificent spires up close, something I had yet to see in such detail. Definitely the optimistic boost our endurance required.

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From the Duomo, we walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest shopping mall. Parts of the ceiling are made entirely of glass, and art works hang openly on the walls. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Though I purchased nothing during my time in Milan (it’s way too expensive), Milan is the recognized European fashion capital, so window-shopping proved entertaining.

I shouldn’t get started on the food, because I might not be able to stop talking about it. It was the best cheap food I’ve had in Europe—which is surprising, considering how expensive everything else in Milan is. But I shouldn’t question it because I have zero complaints. From traditional Italian gelato with fresh melted chocolate at the bottom of the cone to mouth-watering pastas, I never found myself roaming the streets of Milan hungry. I was also really happy I got to eat a sandwich from Bar della Crocetta, a famous Milanese café with savory sandwiches. At 10 euros a sandwich (probably the most expensive meal I had the entire weekend—and that’s on the cheap side in other cities I’ve been too), it best be the tastiest sandwich out there. And it definitely was.

What they say about Italian espresso is true. For someone who can’t go a day without coffee in the morning, exploring the country where espresso was invented guaranteed access to the best tasting coffee at a reasonable price (I paid on average one euro for cappuccinos). Coffee’s a pretty big deal in my life, so getting amazing coffee for cheap made Milan that much more memorable. I definitely recommend going to any city in Italy just to eat your way through it.

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Milan also had interesting nightlife. People tend to dress up a lot more than in other cities I’ve visited. And it seems that everyone in the city goes to the same two clubs on Friday and Saturday. We ended up at this club called Alcatraz (we had heard good things about it) on Saturday night, and it felt more like a warehouse. It was easily the largest nightclub I’d ever seen. To our surprise, a Queen cover band (called Queen Mania) was playing for the first few hours we were there. And they were AWESOME. Frederico Mercury was great on vocals, and the whole experience made for a great last night in the city.

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It’s difficult to look back on this weekend and call it anything else but an experience. I feared for my safety on several occasions; the tourist attractions were pretty underwhelming; and the language barrier proved to be more challenging than anticipated. However, I have nothing but praise for the many beautiful churches scattered throughout the city; eating some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had for so cheap; and sharing endless laughs with a group of people I know will stay friends for life. Milan wasn’t my favorite city, but some of my favorite memories from the semester were made during this trip—and that’s all that matters. Plus, it’s hard to call it an unsuccessful weekend after having this view of the Alps be your last memory of the trip: 

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Turkey Day in Denmark

With all the great things I get to see and do by studying in Europe for a semester, not being able to come home for Thanksgiving is a major drawback. As easy as it is to make a good group of friends you can call a family, there’s nothing like sharing an outrageously large meal of family-secret recipes with people that have been in my life since birth. Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday, and going into the holiday season knowing I wouldn’t be able to celebrate with family was difficult.

But what is the solution that American students think of when they know they will be missing a traditional American Thanksgiving? Cook one in Denmark. First things first, cooking Thanksgiving dinner is a process and a craft. Making dinner for 10+ people takes time, effort, and skill. Having spent much time in the kitchen while my mom cooked for Thanksgiving (though I wasn’t necessarily helping her out with the cooking), I knew it would take some time to make everything. Fortunately for me, one of my friends has a visiting family (sort of like a host family without having to actually live at the house), and this family offered to cook turkey and host a dinner for about 12 people. Everyone invited was then responsible for one or two dishes to bring to the meal.

I will admit…I was really concerned about our ability to put this together. My friends from my Kollegium had never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner before, and we only began cooking just a few hours before the meal. Time was of the essence. Despite the cooking experience I’ve gotten by living on my own while in Denmark, I had very little faith in my ability to cook a Thanksgiving specialty, sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows, never having cooked a dish like this before. After getting the recipe from my mom, I dove right into it.

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An hour before we were supposed to arrive at this Danish family’s house (fortunately walking distance from my Kollegium), the kitchen atmosphere was what could call chaotic. We hadn’t finished cooking, and all of us tried rushing the process without ruining the food. All the stress in the end was worth it. The family set up a beautiful table for the 12 of us, the food was delicious, and no one could eat without a huge smile on his/her face. I have to say my sweet potatoes came out well. I guess I’m getting pretty domestic.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from celebrating Thanksgiving in a foreign country (aside from having more faith in my ability to getting things done on time), it’s that spending an extended amount of time abroad should not just be about cultural absorption. DIS and so many other study abroad programs toss around the word “immersion” as if it’s the core of any abroad experience. As important as coming to understand and experience the culture of your host country, study abroad to me isn’t about immersion. It’s about sharing culture. On of my good friends couldn’t attend this Thanksgiving dinner because one of her classes was going to Tivoli for Christmas festivities. Knowing it was Thanksgiving, the professor urged the class to go because it would be a way for American study abroad students to experience how Danes celebrate the holiday season. That is, immersing themselves into the Danish way of life. I don’t think that’s what this whole semester should be about. Bringing the tradition of Thanksgiving to a Danish family that has never heard of such a holiday, and experiencing that holiday together. That’s sharing. Not only is that the point of Thanksgiving, but it’s also the point of study abroad. Sharing culture, not forfeiting one for the other. As great as immersion can be, sharing cultures allows you to both experience a different way of life and look back at your own with a fresh pair of eyes. And that’s why I’m so grateful I got to experience Thanksgiving in Denmark. However, nothing will ever compare to my mom’s stuffing and apple pie. 

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When in Wien…Do as the Wieners

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Year after year, Vienna tops the rankings as the world’s city with the highest standard of living. After walking down the Schönbrunn gardens, taking a stroll down Vienna’s world famous Christmas markets, watching world-class opera at the Staatsoper, and indulging in the traditional delicacies of Wienerschnitzel and Kakao, it’s difficult to disagree with these ratings. Vienna is truly the gem of the former Hapsburg empire, with monarchs who emphasized an elegant and ostentatious yet refined aesthetic that visitors to Vienna today can enjoy.

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Vienna intrigued me immediately upon arrival. Our hostel was located in almost a residential area in the middle of the city — which made getting into/out of the city doable. The hostel was more a converted apartment. And if I had to characterize it, some adjectives that come to mind are swanky, elegant, and cozy. Granted, student hostels don’t usually conjure images like these, but I’m employing them quite accurately. Our hostel room (which was more like a converted apartment) came equipped with tacky lights, a 1980′s musical instrument set (complete with a recorder and a rainstick), and complimentary wine. By far the best hostel experience I’ve had.

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Vienna (or Wien as it’s called in German) felt much more metropolitan than I had anticipated. It reminded me much of Copenhagen in the sense that the city’s residences developed around the attractions, all located in one central area dubbed “center city.” Exploring Vienna was quite easy. Hoping on a metro for about 1 euro could get you anywhere in the city. Vienna’s metro system runs on 5-minute intervals, and trains operate all night on Fridays and Saturdays. I’d have to say it was the most efficient public transportation I’ve encountered in Europe. I would brag and say Copenhagen’s public transportation is the best, but the diversity in public transportation (sometimes really confusing), the cost, and the recent snow in Copenhagen (shutting down train operations temporarily) have urged me to question its efficiency. Vienna, somehow, has it figured all out.

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As part of the former Hapsburg empire, Vienna is home to two royal castles: Schönbrunn and Hofburg. Walking down the gardens at Schönbrunn reminded me much of Versailles, both over-the-top, elegant palaces. The palace’s gardens intersect the palace itself and a hill. I strongly recommend walking to the top of it, because one can see the entire city of Vienna and the rolling hills of the Austrian countryside on sunny days. Hofburg, in contrast, is located right in the middle of the city and has now been converted into a museum complex — home to one of Vienna’s most famous ancient art museums, the Albertina. Though we opted instead to check out MUMOK (Vienna’s modern art museum) in Museum Quartier, walking through Heldenplatz at Hofburg let us indulge in some beautiful scenery. As an additional incentive to walk through Hofburg, Sacher Wien is located only a few blocks away from the palace. It’s home to a world famous chocolate cake, with a recipe dating back almost 200 years. For 6 euros a slice, it’s still worth it.

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Speaking of food, there was no lack of it in Vienna (that seems to be the common theme in my travel throughout Europe). Wienerschnitzel (literally “Viennese schnitzel”) finds its roots in this magnificent city, which also manages to specialize in scrumptious desserts, brätwurst, and savory street food. Viennese coffee is definitely worth a taste. Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we travelled to Vienna was opening weekend for many of the Vienna’s renowned Christmas markets. Much like a holiday-themed flea market, these beautiful markets sell a range of gifts and souvenirs for the holidays. Surprisingly, many of the vendors sold items at reasonable prices, making the temptation to do some Christmas shopping that much greater. Free food and wine samples were equally abundant. The atmosphere was very much in tune with the stereotypes I had of the holiday season in Europe: ornate and over-the-top, but most importantly cheerful.

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No visit to Vienna is complete without a visit to the Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera). On performance nights, large crowds gather outside the opera’s doors, eagerly awaiting to purchase standing room tickets for the opera. At only 3 euros a ticket, standing in line for standing room tickets to the opera (even for those that aren’t performance art connoisseurs) is absolutely worth it. Getting to watch great opera at a world famous opera house in the performance art mecca of Europe was simply surreal.

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Vienna was one of the few cities I’ve been to were you could live like a royal without having to spend like one. It’s a city that prides itself on not only displaying its culture with all those who visit, but also sharing it affordably. Where else can you see world-class opera for only a few dollars? Reflecting on this travel week, I travelled exclusively in central Europe, and yet, I visited four cities that couldn’t have been more different from each other. All this over-saturation of culture and history made my return to Copenhagen that much more needed. More posts to come soon!!

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You don’t speak Slovakian? And other misconceptions…

If there ever comes a time to be truly adventurous in Europe, study abroad students may go backpacking through the alps or go bungie jumping/sky diving to feel like a thrill-seeker after spending so much time hopping around museums and monuments. I’m not one for heights, so my version of an “adventure” usually doesn’t involve jumping out of planes. No, this next adventure was rather something done on a whim and without much thought–but ended up being the most memorable experience of my semester abroad (thus far).

For our final travel break of the semester, some friends and I were debating what cities to see after visiting Berlin and Prague. Once we had decided to go see Vienna, we wanted to squeeze in one other destination–just for the sake of getting to say we went to four countries in eight days. If only border control still existed in Europe and passports still got stamped when traveling in between countries…oh well. As I was saying, we were looking for one other city to visit. My friend Jackie then suggested we go to the capital city of Slovakia: Bratislava. Having Slovakian heritage, she really wanted to see the country where her family lived for many generations. The pros were that it was relatively cheap compared to other cities (though Slovakia is now on the euro), and a 40 minute bus ride from Bratislava gets you to Vienna for only 7 euros. So we went for it.

To tell the truth, I didn’t know a whole lot about Bratislava, and what I did know failed to get me excited about going. Granted, movies like Eurotrip and Hostel grossly exaggerate Slovakia’s underdevelopment (as a post-communist state, it has actually experienced a very high level of economic growth in the last 20 years) and poorly represent social and cultural institutions of Bratislava specifically. Yet, having traveled earlier in the semester to Estonia (another post-communist state), I knew the challenges of traveling to an underdeveloped place, and the language barrier definitely concerned me. But in the spirit of adventure and memory-making (for better or worse), I figured why not give it a visit.

Upon arriving at Bratislava’s central train station, chaos was among us. All the locals were staring at these three visibly lost Americans who clearly had no idea where to begin to orient ourselves. We knew we had to catch a bus to get to our hostel, but we knew neither which bus to take nor where the bus stop was located. After navigating through this surprisingly overcrowded train station, we asked a countless number of train station employees for directions to the bus stop. It became very clear rather quickly that the English language is not commonly used in Slovakia. No one seemed capable of helping us because they simply could not understand us.

We wandered around until we eventually found what we believed to be the bus stop. After locating a bus map, we figured out which bus to take, and we boarded an incredibly crowded bus with our luggage en route to our hostel. This bus ride made me feel like I was part of a police chase. Aside from the winding, multiple-lane roads throughout Bratislava that are not exactly driver-friendly, the conductor was being a little too liberal with the accelerator. When he’d make sudden stops, our suitcases (and the people standing on the bus) would fly around uncontrollably, like insects trapped in a mason jar, desperate for air. Despite being tossed around Bratislava public transportation like inanimate objects, no one seemed to bat an eye at this NASCAR-wanna be bus driver. Turns out that this sort of thing is pretty standard in Bratislava during rush hour when traffic builds up, and the busses teem with commuters.

After this bus debacle, we get off at what we believe to be our stop. This of course was not without some fiasco involving us trying to get our oversized suitcases out this crowded bus filled with people staring at you with an appalled look because they don’t understand you as you scramble unapologetically off the bus. That’s another mistake I made. The language of Slovakia is Slovak, not Slovakian…

We eventually find our hostel, which ended up being very nice and only a few blocks away from Old Town–the touristy center of Bratislava. By this point, however, we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, leaving us with very little time to see much of the Old Town before sunset. After grabbing a quick lunch, we made our way towards Old Town to wander. In all honesty, we didn’t have much of a plan. We figured Bratislava would be small enough to just get recommendations of what to see from a tourist map or from a receptionist at the hostel. Walking around Old Town Bratislava made me feel like I was in Tallinn again: a very old, quaint town encapsulated by a developing city attempting to scrub away the memories of communism. The Slovakians, in my opinion, felt much more content to be living in Bratislava than the Estonians living in Tallinn. Unlike Estonia, many younger people do not leave Slovakia to go work elsewhere in Europe, a good indicator of the quality of life in Bratislava.

As pretty as Old Town Bratislava was, there wasn’t a whole lot happening. There was good cheap shopping, pretty churches, a couple interesting memorials, stands being set up for an upcoming Christmas market, and delicious smells from the local restaurants. And of all places to find a Cuban restaurant in Europe, I find my first one in Bratislava. Who would’ve thought?!

But as I was saying, there wasn’t a whole lot of activity on this cold November afternoon in Bratislava. After about 2 and a half hours of walking around aimlessly, we headed back to the hostel to do some research on where to get a scrumptious dinner for a reasonable price. Good thing Bratislava has some excellent breweries, and right down the street from our hostel was a local brewery that the hostel receptionist recommended we go check out. The beer was unreal. And the food was amazing. Glad the day got to end on that note.

We had one more day in Bratislava, and I was already a bit concerned about finding something to occupy our day. My friend Jackie had read somewhere online about this castle 20 minutes outside the city that is apparently one of the oldest castles in Europe, and on sunny days, you can see Austrian and Hungarian territory. As cool as it sounded, I was a bit skeptical. We hadn’t done much research, and it looked like the castle pretty much shuts down for business after October. However, Jackie was persistent about going to this castle, the Hrad Devín as it’s called, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. As if visiting Bratislava on a whim wasn’t enough of an adventure, I found myself on a bus the next morning heading towards the town of Devín in rural Slovakia to check out this castle.

I’m a pretty defensive person. I hate admitting when I’m wrong. It’s a character flaw, I know. And this was absolutely one of those times where my judgments would’ve strayed me away from an incredibly memorable experiences. Because by the time I had finished seeing the castle, I had trouble thinking of something that had floored me more so in my entire life than this castle. Unbeknownst to me, the castle lies on a hill right on the Danube river–trapped in between the beautiful rolling hills filled with green grass and trees with leaves in the full fall colors. A Slavic castle, Hrad Devín was built as early as the 8th Century at a strategic intersection between the Moravian and Frank empires. Made entirely out of stone, the castle has definitely had its years. Perhaps it was the teetering façades or the authenticity of the ruins that made the castle feel untouched, yearning to be explored. I found myself reminiscing of my childhood, a time in my life when exploring the unexplored would do nothing short of putting the biggest smile on my face. As the sun beamed out onto the hills of Devín and onto the Danube, not an instant was spared without a camera in hand in an effort to helplessly capture the memories. I was experiencing unadulterated joy much like a child does, with no conception of time or space. It was no longer Europe, or Slovakia, or Devín Castle. It was an experience so much detached from the physical location. And all my focus was on the wonder of it all.

As much as I talk up my visit to the castle, Bratislava itself did have its own little surprises. People generally refer to Berlin as the street art capital of Europe, but in my opinion, Berlin wall art had nothing on the vivid, thought-provoking street art scattered all around Bratislava. So, in the end, Bratislava was 100% worth it. As much as I trust my own judgment, I know now sometimes it’s just better to put your trust into other people. As uneventful as our first day had been, our visit to Devín made the entire trip to Bratislava worth all the words that got lost in translation. Next stop, Vienna!

Czech-ing out Goulash and Smažený

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Prague: land of 10,000 spires; home of all foods thrown into a frying pan (all delicious, of course); and place where “la Vie Boheme” traces its roots. Sounds a lot like Disneyland, am I right? Minus a couple thousand years of war, violence, persecution, and oppression.

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Prague felt like a time warp. I don’t even want to know how much effort it took to preserve flawless architecture this old. Excluding the thousands of tourists that wandered Prague’s cobblestone streets (I keep harping upon the Disneyland motif for a reason…honestly, there were more tourists than locals), I found myself transported to a medieval fairytale. Maybe coming directly from Berlin left this kind of impact. I guess I had adjusted to city life so much that being able to get around a place without having to get on a metro for 15 minutes made the city so authentically antiquated. 

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Our first day in Prague began with a walking tour from anyone on a budget’s top pick: Sandeman’s. Basically, Sandeman’s prides itself on leading high quality, budget-friendly city tours. You don’t pay up front. You pay after your tour is done, and there is no price to the tour. You pay what you want. Sounds like a steal. And our tour (and hilarious half-German tour guide) was excellent. The tour began in Old Town, ventured into New Town (the more modern part of Prague), and ended in the Jewish Quarter–which today is a high-end shopping district. It was absolutely a great idea to start our 3-day excursion in Prague with this walking tour. Not only did provide us with the historical context we wanted before seeing more of the attractions, but also it left us with a dying curiosity to learn more about some of the spots we visited during the tour. Because it was only a walking tour, we did not in fact enter any of the churches, museums, or monuments we passed. Which ended being alright because we got to prioritize the sights we wanted to see most later on in our trip. 

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If you’re on the kind of budget that forces you to settle for budget-friendly tours, fear not. Prague is definitely the city for you. Though a member of European Union, the Czech Republic maintains its national currency: the Czech Koruna. With an exchange rate of 20 to 1 U.S. Dollar, Prague is the most affordable city I’ve visited in Europe. For about the equivalent of 8 dollars, you can go to a nice restaurant, order a pint of beer, and a nicely-portioned entree. Speaking of food, it was a challenge to come by something unappetizing. Fortunately, our hostel was located in Lesser Town, which is crowded with locals instead of tourists. And the local restaurants had the most delicious goulash (meat stew). Plus, they didn’t charge a fortune like many tourist-trap restaurants in Old Town. But even in Wenceslas Square in New Town, street venders selling Smažený sýr (a Czech delicacy that literally translates to “fried cheese”) will charge you $1.50 at most. Imagine a piece of cheese fried like a chicken burger would be, then stuffed in between two pieces of bread. You’ve got yourself a Smažený. Now I know why studying abroad in Prague is a dangerous idea. If only the rest of Europe could be as cheap…well, a kid’s gotta dream. 

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My favorite attraction in Prague was, hands-down, the observatory on Petrin Hill, located in Prague’s Lesser Town (just on the other side of the Charles Bridge from Old Town). A short tram ride brings you to the top of the hill. You cannot miss this Eiffel Tower-looking structure on the hill. After climbing this observatory (probably out of breath and sweating), you get the most beautiful view of Prague, and it makes all the panting worth it. On a sunny day, you can see miles into the Czech countryside, for an incredible view of the rolling hills of rural Czech Republic. Though the observatory looks like an Eiffel Tower rip-off, I enjoyed this view more than I enjoyed the view on top of the the Eiffel Tower. Czech replication = 1; French ingenuity = 0. 

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What made Prague so different from other incredibly old European cities (I couldn’t help but think about Bruges while venturing through Prague) is that a livable city has developed around these preserved sites. Though tourists storm through Prague at all times of the year, offices and modern buildings have popped up around this Disneyland-like place. Unlike Bruges, Prague felt preserved for history’s sake, not to attract flocks of tourists. And that’s what makes it my favorite city in Europe. 

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Authoritarian is the Aesthetic: Berlin

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It’s the home of roman-style, grandiose architecture that stands out amongst developing a developing retro aesthetic. Berlin: at once, it stands out as the antithesis of anything traditional, yet it encapsulates the essence of an old Germany. If you could conceive a city that celebrates the traditional yet continually searches to break from the norm and embrace progressiveness, Berlin’s the closest thing to it.

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Perhaps Berlin’s dualistic nature stems from its unique experiences with extremes. I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, but I’ve definitely gained a stronger appreciation for it during my time in Europe. From the end of the 19th Century, Berlin became known as the cultural mecca of Europe. Arts and the alternative were celebrated for many years. Florescent lights and raw, graphic street art are commonplace in Berlin today—as it was almost a century ago. It was a city that embraced a liberalist approach to life; a progressive city with citizens that championed eccentricity and strived to challenge the conventional.

The city’s character eventually came into conflict with Nazi ideology after the fall of the Third Reich. Under Nazism, Berlin transformed into a hub of authoritarianism. Not only was the city re-envisioned as the capital of an authoritarian nation’s expansionist policies, but authoritarianism also became the aesthetic. Large, monumental structures still standing today sprung up throughout the city. And though Nazism did not survive long in Germany, authoritarianism certainly left a legacy.

Immediately after the fall of the Nazi regime, the city of Berlin divided into two—one belonging to an American-supported, democratic nation; the other belonging to a Soviet-supported, Communist regime. The divide between East and West Berlin predates the dualistic aesthetics one observes today in Berlin. Nowhere else in the world can one step foot in the 1970’s portal of Alexanderplatz in East Berlin (probably one of the more retro areas of the city) and be only a few city blocks away from the aggressively neo-classical Museum Island—a collection of authoritarian-style churches and halls that now serve as the city museums.

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And speaking of museums, there are plenty of them in Berlin. I was travelling with three friends from my Kollegium back in Copenhagen, and since we were only in Berlin for two days, we ended up seeing only two museums. One of Berlin’s most famous museums, the Pergamon, hosts some of the world’s oldest artifacts—including full-scale Roman edifices, the Babylon Gate, and the world-renown Pergamon Altar. An absolutely breath-taking museum, especially since I’ve never seen artifacts that old since I’ve been in Europe.

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Following the Pergamon, we hit up Berlin’s top tourist attraction: Checkpoint Charlie. This was the checkpoint where East Berliners had to cross in order to enter West Berlin. The walk leading up to the checkpoint builds some anticipation. Reconstructed pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed around this small town square, repainted with modern allegories for contemporary audiences. Getting to see the actual checkpoint was remarkable. In this one little street corner so much history was made. Though it feels a bit tacky (two German guards are standing at the checkpoint carrying large American flags to re-create the sense of patriotism and security of the time period), the remnants of authenticity had a lasting impact. The cold rain that day definitely supplemented the atmosphere of the checkpoint. When visiting Checkpoint Charlie, visiting the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (not just the actual checkpoint) is an absolute must. In addition to providing context, the museum has plenty of historical photographs, video galleries, and individual accounts of life in Berlin during Communism. The museum really does provide insight into the hardships of living in East Berlin and highlights the desperation that drove the people living under the shadow of Communism to flee East Berlin.

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After a day full of walking around in the cold rain, it was time for a 3-hour nap (the 4:30 AM wake up to catch a 7 AM flight out of Copenhagen didn’t help either). The nap was well needed to prepare for a taste of Berlin’s nightlife. Many say no other city rivals Berlin’s unique bar/club scene. Perhaps I would agree, but my experience with Berlin nightlife began and ended at the Hofbräuhaus München restaurant in Berlin. I was craving traditional Bavarian food, and nothing is more traditional than an Oktoberfest-themed restaurant (my friend Jackie and I wanted to go, so our other friends traveling with us could get a taste of the real German Oktoberfest). So we made a reservation for Hofbräuhaus. The restaurant is actually a replica of the tent I went to during Oktoberfest in Munich. The long, family-style, wooden tables and a live Bavarian band gave an authentic vibe to this beer hall. Much like at Oktoberfest, the servers were dressed in traditional lederhosen and served liter-sized beers. The food was exactly what I was expecting: stuffed with meat, exaggerated in portions, and mouth-watering. A very merry elderly man at one point hit the dance floor (yes, there was even a dance floor), and we all took turns jiving with this cheery German. Though the atmosphere was nothing like the chaos of Oktoberfest, we all had the time of our lives. 

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During our last day in Berlin (the weather was much nicer), we decided to spend the morning strolling down the East Side Gallery. This outdoor gallery, which replicates part of the Berlin Wall in its original location along the river formerly dividing East and West Berlin, displays the street art of new-age artists in attempt to re-create the aesthetics of East Berlin. During the construction of the East Side Gallery, many of the artists who painted on the original Berlin Wall were invited to re-create their paintings on this very wall—sparking much controversy among the artists and the German people who wished to forget about life in the shadows of authoritarianism. Going to see the wall well aware of its inauthenticity, I was still struck by the gripping, raw, graphic art along this kilometer stretch. Much of the art remained heavily politicized, drawing attention to the development of Berlin since the fall of the Wall and the shortcomings of the German government since that time. It was an absolutely fascinating thing to see, especially for contemporary eyes.

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Speaking of East Berlin, I was shocked that during our stay in Berlin, we never stepped foot once in West Berlin. Many of Berlin’s attractions are actually located in former East Berlin. Had we desired to see West Berlin, maneuvering around the city would have been easy because of the relatively cheap bus and metro systems—which run 24 hours/day on weekends. But Berlin is MASSIVE. Interestingly enough, the original city planners designed the city to comfortably fit an estimated 8 million people, but the city today has merely 3 million inhabitants (talk about unsustainable). No wonder parts of Berlin feel empty at any given point in the day. I’d have to say it was the first time I felt like I was in a Metropolis since I’ve been in Europe. Even compared to Paris (which is an incredibly large city), the antiquities and pedestrian friendliness of all the Parisian streets toned down the metropolitan feel of the city.

Getting to experience Berlin with a group of friends definitely made a huge difference. As much as I loved traveling with my parents during my last break (Mom and Dad, don’t worry…I never get fed as extravagantly as when I’m around you two), experiencing the city with people that have the vigor of energizer bunnies on only 4 hours of sleep (and maybe several cups of coffee later) allowed me to take real advantage of Berlin’s attractions in the mere 36 hours I spent there.

In the end, Berlin was exactly what I was expecting. But I had high expectations. And they were met. Though the ultramodern feel of East Berlin was a bit overbearing, I could appreciate Berlin’s desire to be the capital of all things Retro. Staying in an incredibly swanky hostel in Alexanderplatz (a central square in East Berlin) on its own felt like cultural immersion. It also didn’t hurt that the hostel was centrally located. When you talk about a city with culture, this is it. So many years of history have contributed to Berlin’ contemporary character: an aggressively progressive place that celebrates tradition. 

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Video

Everything is Light

Only on this one night of the year would be normal to see a swarm of people dressed head to toe in white clothing and almost every single American studying abroad in Europe crowding the streets of Copenhagen. It must mean that it’s Sensation: Source of Light.

Essentially a huge rave held in Parken (the soccer stadium), the concert combines live performances from European House Music DJ’s with high-tech, ostentatious circus acts. Though the company travels globally, each concert brings in different DJ’s–creating variety in the shows the company puts up. What this means is that walking into the venue, you will have little to know idea what the experience will be like.

It was, to say the least, tacky. But very well done. And beyond fun. The moment the show started, large 3-dimensional screens made to look like faces, suspended mid-air, began to separate and move about the venue, revealing a hollow, globe-shaped structure where the DJ’s would be playing. Acrobatic acts, fire effects, and dazzling light shows accompanied the DJ’s performances throughout the night. A strict all-white dress code added much to the ambiance. And made for some great images.

In lieu of photos, I’ve provided the trailer the company released to advertise for this year’s show in Denmark. Have a look!

Halloween at Tivoli

With respect to my last post, Halloween is no longer an American phenomenon. There is no longer just a single night in many European cities where people dress up for a night of debauchery. Much like in the U.S., there is a whole Halloween season in Europe. And the evidence lies in Halloween nights at Tivoli Gardens.

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Doubling as an amusement park and a recreational park, Tivoli is one of Copenhagen’s oldest and most popular attractions. It’s pretty impressive to think that there’s a theme park right in the heart of the inner city. But somehow there is. And it’s pretty awesome. I actually hadn’t visited Tivoli until it opened its doors for the Halloween season. And I heard it was something not to be missed. So some friends and I decided to check it out.

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Tivoli operates in seasons. It’s open all of summer, closes for a couple of weeks, then opens again for Halloween, closes for about a month, then re-opens for Christmas, remains closed all of winter, and finally resumes full operation in the spring. If you’re wondering how an amusement park stays open in Copenhagen considering the rainy, windy, unpredictable weather patterns, I wonder the same thing. In fact, the night I went to Tivoli it began pouring rain, while we were riding a roller coaster. And the ride operators expressed no intention of stopping the ride. I guess the common Danish attitude towards the rain is to suck it up and live with it. Well, if I can still ride the roller coasters, I can’t disagree with the Danes.

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Tivoli was decked out in Halloween decorations. But this wasn’t just like a typical makeshift Halloween carnival in the U.S. Lit pumpkins were in abundance; smoky witch cauldrons attracted crowds of children (and my friends as well); and there was even a huge pumpkin that rested on top of the Tivoli hotel. In no way did Tivoli hold back on the decorations. Expecting a sort of European twist to the Halloween celebrations, Halloween at Tivoli was unashamedly American. It reminded me exactly of Halloween back in the states—only much colder and much more ostentatious than any Halloween display. Tivoli even had constructed an elaborate haunted house for the season. I think it’s fair to say that Europe (well, at least Copenhagen) is doing Halloween justice. 

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Sin City

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Steam engines roaring from the boats crossing the regal canals; screams and hollers coming from half-clothed women dancing under red lights; piles of tourists shoulder width apart standing two feet from a world-renowned Rembrandt; trollies whistling their bells helplessly at the flocks of people walking aimlessly along the cobblestone streets. These sights and sounds could only come from Europe’s Sin City.

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Amsterdam, though regal and elegant like many older cities in Western Europe, has an untamed, free-spirited character. Compared to Paris and Bruges, Amsterdam—to say the least—took me by surprise. For starters, Amsterdam’s city center is tiny. I always pictured it being a much larger city. Because so many Americans flock there, you’d think they’d have room for all the tourists that venture to this Bohemian paradise in the summer. I’m so glad I got to see Amsterdam when I did. Not only because I avoided (most of the) tourists, but also because fall was in full bloom. The weather could not have been better for the end of October. Compared to the rain I’ve trekked through endlessly in Copenhagen’s streets, getting to see the sun and clear, blue skies for three days (despite the cold) was a blessing. I will never complain about weather in Northern Europe if it’s not raining.

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Speaking of Northern Europe, it became incredibly apparent that we had entered Northern Europe when our train arrived in Amsterdam. Ultra-modern architecture pervaded amongst the green fields and windmills; English was spoken fluently by all, and the Dutch were more than eager to provide directions; the yellows and oranges characteristic of autumn overpowered the remaining green on the trees alongside the canals; urban, hipster, dark-colored clothing styles replaced the colorful, pompous styles of Paris and Belgium. I immediately developed a sense of familiarity with Amsterdam moments after arriving—canals and H&M’s on every street corner aside. Seriously, there’s at least one H&M per street in every major city in Northern Europe. It’s like their version of a Starbucks obsession.

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What struck me most about Amsterdam was the carefree, wild environment encapsulated amongst royal, elegant buildings. The older brick buildings, the canals that could be found on every street block, and the old cable cars provided an authentically elegant vibe to this Dutch haven. Yet, a piece of Bohemia can always be found in any place where propriety dominates. One unique element of Amsterdam is the legal use, selling, and distribution of coined “euphoric-inducing substances.” Though regulated to a slight degree by the state, marijuana and some hallucinogens are legal, and they’re sold in headshops and specialty cafés throughout the city. So as you walk down one of the grand canals, that potent, smoky, distracting smell is, in fact, not a skunk. Controversial to some; paradise for others.

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Of course, Amsterdam does have its fair share of healthier, family-friendly attractions that bring visitors from all over the world (though I wouldn’t exactly call Amsterdam a kid-friendly city). The Anne Frank Museum, a tour of the house where Anne Frank and her family hid for some time during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, provided me with the context I desired after reading The Diary of Anne Frank in a Holocaust Literature class last year. I no longer had to imagine what the living conditions were like, because I was walking through them. The entire house was bare, but I could picture perfectly the furniture, the smells, and the tensions that Anne describes in such great detail in her diary. Definitely an enlightening, moving experience. In addition, the Rijksmuseum—perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous art museum—hosts many of Rembrandt’s works, including the famous “Night Watch” painting. You actually have to walk into this separate room in the gallery to see the painting because it is ENORMOUS. Just outside the Rijksmuseum stands the photo-famous “iamsterdam” sign. Warning to all: don’t expect to get a picture of yourself in front of the entire sign without a photo-bomb. If you’re going to see tourists in Amsterdam at any point in the year, I guarantee 90% of them will be in front of this sign at any point of the day. I shouldn’t criticize though. As much as I pretend I’m not a tourist, I’m the stereotype of one…

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Finally, you can see many of Van Gogh’s works currently at the Hermitage Amsterdam. Due to renovations at the Van Gogh Museum, many of the paintings were moved temporarily to the Hermitage. Though the museum generally doesn’t attract many visitors, I’m glad I got to see it because, aside from the incredible Van Gogh paintings, the gardens outside the museum could not have been a more ideal place to sit down and relax a little bit before seeing more art.

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It would be unfair of me to write a post about Amsterdam without any mention of the Red Light District. Aside from some ‘soft’ drugs, prostitution is legal to some degree in Amsterdam. The (in)famous Red Light District is a collection of streets where sex-workers stand in front of display windows covered in red lights and bring in potential costumers. After walking through it on the Saturday of Halloween festivities (the place is always packed with tourists), I felt more upset than shocked about the area. Seeing the Dutch state permit such commodification disappointed me. Of course, I recognize I’m writing with a bias as a college student whose mission it is to question everything and anything. As hard as I try to adopt another paradigm for justifying the existence of the Red Light District (one that maybe the Dutch government uses), I just cannot. I do, however, recommend that everyone who visits Amsterdam walk through it briefly to see it as an educational experience. The other bars and nightclubs make the area pretty cool and a hot spot for nightlife in the city.

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Being in Amsterdam during the weekend leading up to Halloween was kind of extraordinary. I’ve always had an affinity with Halloween because I was born the day before it, so I grew up with Halloween being one of my favorite holidays. And Amsterdam DOES Halloween. The Dam, one of the main squares in the city, constructs a carnival with rides, haunted houses, and games. The bright lights, the screams coming from the rides, and the people dressed up for Halloween provided an interesting contrast with the surrounding older, elegant buildings of the Dam. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Europe.

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Amsterdam was easily the most interesting city I’ve seen thus far during my semester abroad (probably my favorite city I visited that travel week). The people, the art, the canals, and the culture felt at once familiar yet so removed from reality. It’s a proper European city with a wild attitude and a free-spirited disposition. 

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Another Belgian Waffle? I’m Absolutely Flemished!

I thought I couldn’t eat any more after my 5 days in Paris…turns out I was wrong. 

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To give some context, after leaving Paris with my parents, we ended up in the quaint Medieval town of Bruges. It’s a UNESCO-preserved world heritage site located in Western Belgium, about three hours by train from Paris. Though Bruges was full of overpriced restaurants (which I have to say were still pretty good) and gimmick tourist activities (apparently one of the more popular things to do in Bruges is to take a horse-and-carriage ride around city), something in the combination of cold rain, a shared familial inability to read a simple tourist map, and an endless selection of charming chocolate shops made this Euro-version Disneyland feel authentic for the day.

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Upon arriving at the hotel, we got a map of the city (I wouldn’t really call it a “city”) and pinpointed the different places we each wanted to visit. It become immediately obvious to us that there wasn’t a whole lot to “do” in Bruges but walk around and “stare at a lot of pretty things.” Which was definitely nice after coming immediately from Paris. In any case, we began to make our way around the town after grabbing some (overpriced) lunch. Within the first five minutes of walking into the freezing cold rain, we immediately ran into a street vendor selling freshly made Belgian waffles. When in Belgium…

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I’d say we saw most of the town after 90 minutes of walking around it, which included the detours our noses took into every chocolate store and bakery and the bickering that ensued as we helplessly attempted to locate ourselves on this dinky tourist map. But were those chocolate shops amazing…

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The canals were by far the most picturesque part of Bruges. As stunning as the Medieval architecture was (many of the 12th Century buildings remained in tact), it was only perfected by these canals running throughout the town. It would’ve been ideal to see the canals on a sunny day, but waiting around Northern Europe for perfect weather is all-together impractical. Fortunately, the cold and the rain provided that extra sense of gloom appropriate for a Medieval town. 

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By the end of the day, I was exhausted and was still feeling pretty full from my mid-day Belgian Waffle snack that accompanied a pretty big lunch. My parents decided to try traditional Flemish food for dinner, and we ended up at this incredibly authentic, quaint Flemish restaurant that doubled as an inn. Pretty traditional. After the fam and I killed two large bottles of heavy Belgian beer (about 3 servings of beer per bottle), a meal felt kinda unnecessary. Next thing I know, a waiter sets down the largest dinner bowl I had ever seen in my life in front of me and begins to serve freshly made French Fries from a large basket without once indicating once he was going to stop serving them. Once other waiters had done the same thing to my parents, I instantly realized that the large bowl of Flemish Beef Stew and mountain of French Fries was a serving intended for one person. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. 

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I didn’t finish my meal (probably because lunch, a Belgian Waffle, and a couple of beers were still hangin’ around in my stomach). But it was easily the best meal I’ve ever had in my life. Feeling absolutely satisfied with how the evening had turned out, I was ready to head back to the hotel and hit the sack. However, rather than asking for the check, my Mom asks the waiter for the dessert menu…

Okay. I was not feelin’ this one, so I took a pass. But my Mom wouldn’t hear any of my whining. She was going to share a dessert with someone. And that someone was going to be me (Mom, if you’re reading this, that is exactly how it sounded). When the waiter brought over what looked like a foot-long Belgian Waffle with ice cream, melted chocolate, and whipped cream, I felt my stomach run away to a dark place in oblivion where it never wanted to be found again. I shamefully admit that it was the most delicious dessert I’ve had…and I also shamefully admit that I ate just about all of it. 

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Well, I gotta say Bruges did a number on my appetite. I ate the best meal of my life in Belgium and got to spend the day trekking around a beautiful town with the two people who continue to spoil me rotten. Couldn’t have asked for a better vacation with the parents in Bruges. 

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And now for something completely different…AMSTERDAM

 

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