Unlimited Toast

In Which I Indulge My Inner Nostalgic

September 14th, 2010 · No Comments

Not really sure what I intend to accomplish with this post, but I’m feeling nostalgic, and I’d rather put off some homework a while longer, so it’s getting written. A year ago today us AIFS kids finally made it to Salzburg and started building our lives in our new city. From my vantage point today, it seems ridiculous that there was ever a time I wasn’t friends with the people I bonded with, that grocery shopping was difficult, that riding the bus was a challenge, or that going to O’Malley’s wasn’t just what everyone did almost every night. Yet there was that time, and I can remember distinctly looking up to the Salzburg fortress on our first walk into the city that jetlagged Sunday night of our arrival and wondering how anyone could ever feel at home in a city built around an ancient castle, a city so different from the circa-1980s suburbs so many of us grew up in. Now I know. You feel at home when you memorize the bus map and schedule. When you have close friends and can walk around town and run into people you know. When you have favorite foods, places, and traditions. It didn’t take as long as one would think, and it hasn’t faded much over the past couple of months.

I still miss Salzburg everyday. I catch myself putting German radio on to fill the silence. I’m still hording a few bars of Milka chocolate and some bags of gummy bars. (For what occasion, I’m not sure) I have a slightly tattered Salzburg Red Bulls poster up on my wall. So, yes, I miss the place. But even more so I miss the people. I miss laughing until I cried over the silliest of things, and sharing the bizarre sense of achievement you get when you master even the smallest of tasks in a foreign country in a foreign language. I miss late night and early morning train/bus rides, and the sense that anything was possible because, no matter how insane the plans, someone was wiling to get on a train with you at 4 in the morning to god knows where.

Would I go back tomorrow? I would, but I know it wouldn’t be the same as it was a year ago, and that would be enough to make me hesitate. Salzburg, as any city, has changed I’m sure since I left it in December, and I’ve changed as well. I’ve re acclimated to life in the states where stores and cars are bigger, kebabs are not nearly so popular, and some of my best friends are scattered across the country instead of nearby where I want them to be. (Miss you guys terribly) But I know I’ll make it back to Salzburg day; I hope all of us will, together or separately. And when we once again find ourselves on the sidewalk in the middle of the city staring up at the massive Salzburg fortress, I hope it feels like coming home.

Tags: Salzburg 09

Salzburg Gets Visitors

November 27th, 2009 · 1 Comment

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The family came to town last weekend! I picked them up at the Salzburg train station around 1 on Saturday with bus tickets and chocolate bars in hand, and they somehow managed to remain enthusiastic about seeing Salzburg despite the jet lag and the crowded train ride from Munich. Kebaps for lunch revived them a bit and then we trekked down the road to my dorm so that they could see the bad spring break hotel that I’ve been living in for two months and meet Rachelle. We took them into the Cathedral and walked past Mozart’s house. Then we all wandered around the recently opened Christmas markets for a little while before sleepiness got the best of the family, and I had to send them off to their hotel to recover from jet lag. Sunday we wanted to go out into the mountains but then realized we’d missed the only bus of the day out to the hiking trails by about a half an hour. Oh darn. We settled instead for climbing up the fortress hill here in town and looking down over Salzburg from up there. We ate lunch at a beer hall on the hill, and then I let the three of them go into the fortress on their own so that I could get some homework done. That night we took the bus out to Hellbrunn Palace to see one of Salzburg’s other Christmas markets (and because I’d been told that there would be live reindeer at this one) and oohed and ahhed at the twinkly lights and the decorated trees. There was lots of good stuff to be purchased, but alas no reindeer to be seen. Disappointment.

On our way back to their hotel that night we got stuck in epic traffic as 20th Century Fox had so considerately blocked off some of the major roads in Salzburg to film their silly movie. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz came to town to film Knight and Day, which apparently involves people jumping off of roofs and having car chases down narrow streets. Oh, and a helicopter of some sort. And, as if the traffic weren’t bad enough, now we’re all going to need to go see the darn thing when it comes out in July just because we’re going to want to see Salzburg make her cameo appearance. And someone in our group got Tom Cruise to sign his forehead.

Monday we wandered around Salzburg some more, giving my sister plenty of time to accumulate lots of strange stuff at the Christmas markets. Late in the afternoon they tagged along with me and Rachelle to our weekly grocery shopping excursion and proceeded to buy lots of random Austrian goodies. My sister then ordered a hamburger at dinner that night. Fail.

On Tuesday, their final day in the city, we shopped some more (the Christmas markets are endless mazes) and ate lunch at a little out of the way cafe in order to escape the rain. Kirsten, Rachel, and Rachelle joined us in hiking up the Kapuziner Berg that morning, a feat that we had yet to accomplish in Salzburg and which involved quite a lot of steps. But the views were quite awesome.
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I had to run away to take a test for our Austrian Culture class, but we said our goodbyes later that night over pizza at a little restaurant near their hotel. They left on a 6:45 train to Munich the next morning. Their trip went so fast, but I’m glad they all could come so that they’re not relying on pictures alone to imagine we’re I’ve been living all fall. It’s a city worth seeing, and one I’m going to have a very hard time saying goodbye to when I leave in less than three weeks.

That’s right, less than three weeks. I still have so much to see and do and papers to write and things to buy and foods to try. But somehow it will all get done. I think. I had fried dough and sauerkraut for dinner at the Christmas market on Wednesday (Austria will clog your arteries) before we went ice skating one more time on, and this time more of the girls came with us so that we had quite a group. My friend Kenza bonded with an adorable Austrian little girl who then kept following us around and holding her hand. Too much cuteness. We had a lot of fun, and I somehow managed not to fall even once.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, though it was hard to notice over here. Some kids were pretty upset about not being home for the holiday, but it was interesting to try and take the Austrian point of view and see it as any other Thursday in November. Some of us went to the weekly farmers’ market in the morning and marveled at the endless amounts of cheese and breads and meat. I have determined I’m going to need to live in a city with markets. They make life much more fun. That night, after an afternoon session of paper writing, we did get some semblance of holidayness when we all got dressed up to go to dinner. It wasn’t turkey and mashed potatoes, but it was a good meal at the oldest restaurant in central Europe, as well as performances of various numbers from Mozart’s operas. The restaurant was beautiful, and it was nice to be there as one big group to help ward off the homesickness some people were feeling.

Dinner didn’t wind down until about 11 at night, and yet 21 out of the 36 of us were up and ready to drive to Innsbruck at 6:30 this morning. We drove down through the Alps in the dark, arriving in the still sleepy town of Rattenberg while the frost still clung to the grass and the sun wasn’t high enough to melt the fog off of the mountains.
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In typical Andreas style, we hiked our way up a hill to see a fortress that it turns out we couldn’t get into anyway. But the views were good, and the hike kept us from freezing in the early morning mountains so no one complained too loudly. After our stop over we got to Innsbruck about a half our later. Two time home of the Winter Olympics, Innsbruck is much further into the mountains than Salzburg, and the peaks looked almost fake in all of their snow capped hugeness. We stopped for strudel at a little bakery (sour cherry and cinnamon-yum!) before going on a tour of the city with Andreas. The Christmas markets are all set up in Innsbruck as well, so the whole city smelled like Austrian Christmas- sauerkraut, chestnuts, and cinnamon.
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Innsbruck is rather like Salzburg in that many of its streets are winding and narrow, and the buildings themselves old and smashed together at strange angles. But Innsbruck has giants built into their streets and a Fairy Tale passage featuring statues of dozens of different fairy tales. We had fun trying to decipher the stories we knew from the German titles. After the tour we had just enough time to catch lunch and do some souvenir shopping before it was back on the bus and off to the town of Hall, a little outside of Innsbruck. Hall was another typical Austrian town, complete with Christmas decorations and church spires. Had Andreas had his way we would have made multiple stops after Hall, but we all insisted that sheer exhaustion was putting a damper on the touring, and so we all piled back on the bus for the last leg of our last AIFS excursion of the semester. We had a Sound of Music singalong before curling up as best we could in our seats and falling asleep on the 2.5 hour drive back to Salzburg.

Tonight we’re tired, there’s a party of Spanish speakers going on outside our door, and I’m wishing I had maybe done some homework instead of mess with blog entries and photo updates. But what’s done is done. Tomorrow we’re getting together with the girls at Frau Shoettke’s to ring in the Christmas season by improvising Christmas cookies as best we can with the measuring utensils and ingredients we could muster up. Should be fun, and hopefully the results will be edible. Sunday is a ‘real football’ face-off between Salzburg and Vienna, so we’re going to try and be there to cheer on our Red Bulls. So much to see and do, so little time! For better or worse, we’re on the home stretch.

Tags: Salzburg 09

To Bohemia and Back

November 20th, 2009 · No Comments

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Rachelle is being studious and working on her research paper at the moment, but my brain couldn’t handle any more refugee law. Blog writing is far more attractive then doing homework late on a Friday night anyway. Last Friday at this time though we were in Prague. We were up before the sun (we’ve done that far too many times this semester) that morning and on a bus to the Czech Republic by 6:45. We drove through the old border control station not too far outside of Vienna and then finally arrived in Prague around 1 in the afternoon. We had a city tour to orient ourselves after checking into our hotel (where Rachelle and I discovered, to our amusement, that we had the handicapped room), and it was only a matter of minutes into the tour that we all fell in love with Prague. It’s a city full of many different architectural styles (City of a Thousand Spires) with a history that hits you over the head while you’re walking around. We all crossed the Charles Bridge and rubbed a certain statue, a gesture we were told guarantees that we will make it back to Prague one day. There was a market going on in the Old Town Square that we wandered through before heading back to the hotel room and watching American TV dubbed in German while getting ready for dinner. We don’t have much access to TV here in Salzburg, so it was pretty funny to see actors we recognized speaking with what were obviously not their own voices. Dinner was provided for us at, oddly enough, a place called Al Capone Restaurant. We had schnitzel. Austrian food in an Italian-American restaurant in Prague. It really is a small world. We went out after dinner and some of my friends decided to embrace Czech culture by embracing absinthe. Wise decision? Probably not. But there are some interesting pictures of them all attempting to light sugar on fire before drinking it.

The next morning some of us girls met up with a friend of Kirsten’s who was studying in Prague for the semester. She and a friend took it upon themselves to show us the ins and outs of the city, and they played the role of tour guides rather well. We were up early enough to witness Prague covered in a mist so thick that from the middle of the bridge you couldn’t see either shore. The girls took us up the many flights of stairs to Prague Castle (because what is a trip without climbing a mountain I ask you?) which is more of cathedral within a walled compound then a castle, but cool nonetheless. Had the fog not been determined to obstruct the seeing of anything more than two feet in front of you, the views from the hill would have been gorgeous. The castle gardens weren’t open and the cathedral was holding mass so we couldn’t get inside either of them, but all the more reason to make it back to Prague. We walked around more of the city, eventually coming to Lennon’s Wall, a section of wall graffitied over and over again with Beatle’s lyrics, peace signs, and names. It started as a means to convey anti-communist sentiments but has sense evolved into a general expression of peace, love, and all that jazz. Kind of cool to see the things people had scribbled on it. Not too far from the wall was a fence where couples wrote their names on a lock before clamping it to the fence and tossing the key into the river beneath. A bit melodramatic for my taste, but it makes for a cool collection of locks. After yet more exploring we came to the vegetarian restaurant that the girls had made reservations at for lunch. It’s become one of their favorite places to eat in the city, and after lunch it was easy to see why. We were excited to find cheddar cheese on the menu (Gouda’s great and all, but Austria doesn’t know what it’s missing with it’s lack of cheddar) and discovered a new taste for hot apple juice. The girls studying in Prague are also AIFS students, so it was fun to compare and contrast our experiences with the same program but in different cities. It seems a lot of us who ended up in Salzburg had at some point considered studying in Prague, but, as much as I loved it, Salzburg is so much of a home now that it’s hard to imagine spending the semester anywhere else. We said goodbye to our tour guides shortly after lunch, leaving us with time on our hands and not much of a plan. We settled for pretending to do homework while actually watching further strange German television. We ate dinner that night at the market in the square, where we ordered something we had at first thought to be some sort of snazzy Czech pizza but which turned out to be deep-fried dough with ketchup, garlic, and cheese. Interesting, and, we all agreed, really not very good. But we ate it anyway. We people watched in the square for a while, and soaked in the city a bit.
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It was an early night though because it was an early start yet again on Sunday. We traded the big city environment of Prague for the small, medieval Czech town of Český Krumlov about 30 km from the Austrian border. The entire town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, quite the feat considering that twenty years ago it was falling apart under communism. It was a cute town, “crooked” as our tour guide called it, full of colorful old houses and narrow streets.
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We ate lunch at a tiny little sandwich shop and then spent the rest of our Czech currency on an odd Czech dessert that consists of rings of fried dough coated in sugar and cinnamon. Yum. Though of course, in true Czech style, the line took forever, and we then had to run to catch the bus. It was worth it.

We got back into Salzburg around dinner time. The rest of our week passed fairly uneventfully. The homework is piling up, so many of us have spent quite a bit of time holed up in our rooms attempting to finish assignments. In our Austrian Culture class on Tuesday our teacher invited a man who had grown up in California but who moved to Salzburg as an adult 27 years ago to come in to talk to us about the differences between Austria and the US. He rambled a bit, and he of course hasn’t lived in the States for a time longer than we’ve all been alive, but his perspective was interesting. I was especially amused when he, the native English speaker, had to stop a few times and ask our professor, the native German speaker, what the English word for certain things was. Just goes to show if you don’t use a language you lose it.

Wednesday and Thursday the excitement built in Salzburg over the imminent arrival of Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise who are filming a movie here over the next few days. One girl in our group has reported a Cameron Diaz sighting, but they’ve fenced off most of the movie set so hers may be the first and last. We went ice skating at the newly set up outdoor ice rink in the old town Wednesday night, and though our feet were sore by the end of the evening, Rachel, Rachelle, and I had a lot of fun. And the Christmas markets started here this week as well, so we’ve all been slowly getting into the holiday spirit, though the oddly warm weather isn’t helping too much. We have four different markets, each with a slightly different flair to them, and I’m sure we’ll be spending quite a bit of time Christmas shopping and pasty eating at all four of them. Some of us put on our dirndls today to go wander the markets, only to find ourselves the unintentional stars of the place. We had a number of Austrians comment on our outfits, and a number of Americans ask us what we were wearing and why. A bit more hard to swallow was the angry Austrian man who yelled at us for daring to wear flip flops, sneakers, and sandals with our dresses. We didn’t bring our whole closets with us, so our shoe choices are rather limited, but that shook us up a bit, and our enthusiasm for wearing our dresses and taking fun Salzburg pictures dwindled (we did, however, have people taking pictures of us. Tourists are weird.)

My parents and sister are coming tomorrow (in fact, I believe their plane is probably in the air by now), which is crazy because it feels like it was just yesterday that they finally committed to coming to visit. I’m meeting them at the Salzburg train station in the afternoon, and it will be fun to show them all the places I’ve explored over the past two months. Now if only all of my homework was done…

Tags: Salzburg 09

When in Rome…

November 12th, 2009 · No Comments

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…or Florence, as the case may be, eat lots of gelato! At least that’s the rule we went by during our weekend in Tuscany. Rachelle, Rachel, Kirsten and I left a week ago today for our Italian adventure. Before our train that night I had a walking tour with my history class to see all of the places in Salzburg that have a connection to World War II or the Third Reich, and it was really strange to learn that some of the buildings we pass by everyday were sites of Nazi book burnings or SS prisons. Few of the buildings have any markers to indicate what they were, but most are so little changed that they are easy to identify from 1930s and ’40s pictures. Depressing.

But shortly thereafter we were getting ready to board our 9:10 train. We all got a bit of a shock only a short while into the trip after Angry Austrian Train Man, his name as we refer to him now, yelled at Rachel for daring to put her foot up on the seat in front of her. German can be a frightening language as it is, so it shakes a person up when its being directed at you loudly. His outburst quickly became rather amusing though, and we played cards and chatted until we got to Villach, Austria were we needed to make a train transfer. From there to Florence we attempted to sleep, sprawled across our seats and squished on top of each other, but we all got at least a little rest before the train pulled up in Florence at 6:30 in the morning. Our hostel had asked us to confirm our early arrival time, so of course when we got there around 7 no one was around to answer the door. Someone finally came and, bleary eyed, politely inquired as to what the heck we were doing there. Confused, cranky that we were being dumped out into early morning Florence instead of being able to take a few hours nap, we left our suitcases with him and promised to return a few hours later. A snack at a cafe perked us up a bit, and we decided we might as well head to the Accademia Gallery, where the David statue is housed. It opened at 8:15, and we were first in line, so we had the whole place practically to ourselves for a time. The statue is one of those pieces of art we’ve all seen in textbooks since elementary school, so it was really cool to see it in person. We wandered through the rest of the galleries as well, oohing and aahing at the different statues. As the museum was getting more crowded we could feel our eyelids drooping and decided to escape to our now-ready hostel to take a quick cat nap.

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A few hours later we were far more ready to face the city. We grabbed sandwiches for lunch and hiked up to Michelangelo Plaza, a hill with a gorgeous view out over the entirety of Florence. So awesome. We hung around soaking in the view for a while, and then we explored a church on the hill that had a tangled maze of a cemetery behind it. We got some gelato and sat on the side of the plaza watching the sun get lower and a cute newlywed couple take wedding pictures with all of Florence in the background. By the time we hiked down from Michelangelo Plaze the sun was setting with a vengeance, and we were getting hungry. We took the time to stroll across the Ponte Vecchio, an old covered bridge that today houses lots of jewelry stores. Shiny. Dinner followed (pasta of course!), and then it was more gelato. Yum. After our train ride the night before we were all falling asleep at 8, so we made it an early night and headed back to our hostel with the tiny creaky elevator and our room with no heat.

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Saturday morning we woke up in time to get to the Uffizi Gallery before it opened. We had been warned that it gets super crowded later in the day, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t have to climb over people to look at paintings. The gallery was gorgeous, full of Renaissance era artwork, most of which Kirsten was able to explain to us. We took a hint from Kirsten’s old family vacations and each chose something to count in the paintings. There were a lot of horses, but not enough to keep me out of fourth place. We must have seen virtually every painting in the place, and by the time we’d wound our way out of the galleries and through the endless Asian tour groups we were in desperate need of some lunch. Pizza seemed an appropriate choice, though resisting the temptation to pick it up and eat it with our fingers proved exceedingly difficult. We all ordered different kinds, and all were rather tasty. That afternoon we found the Florence street market, full of leather products and jewelry and t-shirts that said silly things in Italian. We went into the Duomo (the main cathedral) as well as some other churches. And I’m pretty sure we ate a lot of gelato, seeing as that’s all we ever did. We even had a rule that we couldn’t eat the same flavor twice, so between the four of us we tried just about everything. Ever since Budapest, Rachelle and I seem to have a knack for coming across random parades, and Florence was no exception. What we at first perceived to be an anti-tax protest turned out to be a mini gay rights parade. You go Italy. The parade worked its way down the street, and we found a little place to have pasta for dinner again that night before managing to discover an English pub showing American college football on TV. The half of our quartet who actually enjoys football found this entertaining.

Sunday we woke up to rain and cold and not much left on our list of things to do. We finally discovered a place with cannolis (yet another food on our ‘we have to have while it Italy’ list) and sat eating those while waiting for the rain to stop. Of course, in keeping with the theme, a bizarre parade of Italian soldiers in uniforms ran by the cafe playing ‘Hava Nagila’ on their trumpets. Europe never fails to make me laugh. We then attempted to venture and find gardens that were marked on our map, but as it turns out the Four Seasons hotel had bought them and fenced them off, so alas, no gardens for us. Cold, and with our jeans wet almost to our knees, we stopped for cappuccino if for no other reason than that we were in Italy. This non-coffee drinker had to drown hers in sugar but drank it. Eventually we found ourselves at the Medici Palace, which you had to pay to get into, so we settled for taking silly ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ pictures with our umbrellas outside. Finally, finished exploring, we ate gelato yet again and then dragged our stuff back to the train station. We staked out a table in the back and proceeded to cover it in homework assignments as we attempted to catch up on our work while waiting for our 6:30 train. Of course it’s hard to concentrate when you’re freezing. Florence does not believe in heating its buildings it seems. Several hours of shivering later we celebrated the fact that our train was not one of the many canceled ones that evening and piled on for the quick two hours to Venice. We had just enough to time to make our connection there, and then we were stuck for the long haul back to Salzburg. Poor Diego, our Italian compartment mate, was probably regretting his choice of train when the four of us showed up. I know I caught him talking about ‘quatros Americanos’ on the phone at one point, and if I knew the Italian word for crazy I probably would have heard that proceeding it. He was a good sport though, and the train ride went relatively quickly. Angry Austrian Train Man was back, but he was much friendlier this time, and when I woke up for a moment at a stop still in Italy it was snowing like insanity. We got back home at around 4 in the morning, and my German skills were tested when our taxi driver back to the dorm decided I should want to chat in a foreign language at that time of the morning. The whole trip was a blast though; it was a stunning city with lots of good food and lots of bonding time for the four of us.

I spent most of this week stressing about homework because I had a big presentation for a class on Wednesday. I am all sorts of happy to have it over with. Yesterday too Rachelle and I had the fun adventure of searching out the Austrian equivalent to Draino so that we could finally fix our evil shower that refuses to drain. I’d really rather not ever have to empty a shower with cooking pots either, but luckily we were both amused enough by it that we didn’t take the time to consider how gross it really was. For the time being the problem seems to be solved. We made Austrian food for our weekly girls’ dinner last night, so that was fun. I met a girl from the second floor of our building who is from Columbia and only speaks Spanish and German but who wants to learn English, so it was quite the experience with all of us attempting to use a combination of Spanish, English, and German to communicate. Not much else too exciting though. We leave for Prague at the crack of dawn tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a spectacular city so I can’t wait to see it. Can’t quite believe we leave for home 5 weeks from today though; we’re trying to cram in everything we still have to see and do. Not to mention those three major research papers I still need to get a handle on.

Tags: Salzburg 09

Through the Iron Curtain

October 28th, 2009 · No Comments

Last week was pretty slow by the normally chock full Salzburg standards. I had two tests so we spent quite a bit of time studying. The vice mayor of Salzburg came into our Austrian Culture class one night, and listening to what he had to say about the challenges of governing a city like Salzburg was pretty interesting. Then Salzburg had its annual jazz festival so some of us ventured out into the city to listen to some music. Granted, jazz by Salzburg’s definition is not quite what most Americans would call jazz, but it was fun. Wednesday night we found ourselves listening to some sort of gypsy band that sang in Spanish. Thursday night we jumped around from venue to venue and ended up exploring some parts of Salzburg that we’d never walked through before. It was good to have a fairly relaxing week though because it meant we had sufficient energy to embark on our latest weekend adventure, this time to Budapest.

Our train to Hungary left the Salzburg train station at 4:30 in the morning. After some consideration Rachelle and I, as well as our friends Mike and Phil who came with us, determined that it made the most sense to just stay awake through Thursday night and then sleep on the train for most of the morning. So Thursday afternoon I called to reserve a taxi for 3:30 AM and hung up a few minutes later only semi-confident that the woman at the taxi company had understood what I was telling her. When we were all standing in front of our dorm, freezing, at 3:30 and there was no taxi I wasn’t entirely surprised. I was however, a little nervous we were going to miss our train. After a few minutes of being creeped out by a strange car driving down our street backwards, discovering that it was in fact the newspaper delivery man and not a serial killer, and fretting about our lack of a ride, we walked towards the main road in hopes of finding a random taxi. We had just gotten around the corner from the dorm when we saw just such a taxi coming towards us. Much jumping up and down ensued. The taxi put his turn signal on as though he saw us, but then he turned down the street we had just come from. Assuming he was simply turning around, this did not concern us greatly at first. When we realized he wasn’t coming back for us we realized he probably had been our original taxi all along and was now waiting outside of our dorm. Rachelle proceeded to run down the street to fetch him. Just after she’s turned the corner Mike and Phil and I witness a bus pull out of the bus depot a block from our building. It’s 3:45 in the morning. You’re lucky to ever catch a bus past midnight here in Salzburg. And not only was this bus randomly leaving the depot in the middle of the night, it had Main Train Station as its destination. The three of us just about died. We have since declared it a Phantom Bus. Maybe it never existed.

Eventually Rachelle came back with our taxi and we made it to the station with plenty of time to spare. When we got on the train though we suddenly realized we had no idea where to sit. Our tickets had an assigned compartment, but all of the train’s other passengers had just come from Switzerland in the middle of the night and understandably were all sprawled across the seats sound asleep. We clunk up and down the train a bit before finally asking someone where we ought to be. Of course it’s four cars behind our current position, so we traipse all the way back. Upon finding our correct compartment we discover two women fast asleep. Awkward. We have to wake them up. They speak Hungarian. Eventually we all get seated and attempt to sleep for the seven hour trip.

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We got to Budapest groggy and hungry and quickly discovered we had no idea what was going on. We came out of the train station into a chaotic construction scene and had only a vague plan that involved getting to the metro. Where the metro was we hadn’t a clue. Fortunately someone pointed us in the right direction of the underground, and we lugged our luggage down the long escalator only to be reminded that we had no Hungarian currency, and we couldn’t buy metro tickets in Euros. Cue trekking back up the escalator and venturing out into the surrounding streets in search of an ATM. This was no easy feat. When we did find one we had no idea how much money we needed, as the Hungarian forint was so inflated at one point that a meal might cost 1000 forint. Really strange to see an ATM spit out a bill with 10,000 written on it. Money in hand we guessed our way through the metro and to our hostel. The hostel was in the middle of yet another construction site, and a crowd of rowdy people carrying flags seemed to be standing directly in front of our building. Confused, tired, and growing increasingly annoyed at our inability to read Hungarian, we fought through the crowd and to the hostel door. Now the the outside of this building was possibly one of the sketchiest buildings in the history of ever. We had already become nervously aware of the general rundown appearance of parts of the city, and so it was with a great deal of trepidation that we hiked up the several flights of stairs we had to take to the hostel itself. Much to our delight, the hostel turned out to be a perfectly lovely little hotel, with free cookies and a lot of other travelers willing to share their various travel stories.

We ate lunch that first day at a Hungarian restaurant not far from our hostel. The rest of the day we spent napping and wandering around, getting our feel for the city and the things we wanted to see and do. It was also a Hungarian national holiday, celebrating the anniversary of their 1956 Revolution. We saw a huge parade of people carrying Hungarian flags and lots of the buildings in the city were decked out in red, white, and green. Though the revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, Hungarians are still very proud that theirs was one of the first attempts to overthrow communism in the Eastern Bloc. Saturday we woke up and set out along Vaci Street, one of Budapest’s main tourist drags, until we got to the Central Market Hall. The first floor of the huge building is mostly food stands with vegetables and fruits spilling out everywhere. Upstairs is filled with souvenir stalls and people trying to sell stacking dolls, lacy tablecloths, and beer steins. We wandered through the maze of aisles, bought some neat pastries (real whipped cream!), and then left to see more of the city.

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Exploring seemed to involve climbing a lot of hills. Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River, and the Pest side is relatively flat, but the Buda side has several large hills. We climbed up endless amounts of stairs, and from there we could look out over a lot of the city. We saw the former palace, which is now a museum, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which is some sort of former fort overlooking the river. To me it just looked like a sandcastle. The guys went into a military history museum, but Rachelle and I sat outside rather than stare at a bunch of old war stuff. That night I had one of my favorite foods for dinner- cabbage and noodles! Yum.

Sunday we planned to venture to Memento Park. After consulting numerous guidebooks it seemed that this park would be a cool place to see a piece of history because, basically, after communism ended in Hungary, Budapest put all of its old communist statues in one park rather than destroy them. We caught a tourist bus from one of the main metro stations and quickly realized how ridiculous the whole thing was going to be. Communist march music blared over the bus’s speaker system. We drove about 20 minutes outside of town and got off the bus at a dusty patch of ground in a semi-residential area. The guide informed us that we had an hour and half to see all of the “sites” of Memento Park. Picture if you will half a dusty football field with two dozen or so large, angry looking statues spread around, and none of the figures have any explanations or labels concerning their history or former location. Imagine our joy at discovering we could see all of them in fifteen minutes. Granted, the statues were kind of cool in a we’re-definitely-in-Eastern-Europe sort of way. But even after admiring them thoroughly we had tons of time left to kill, and so we spent it watching old Hungarian spy training videos in a dark little room on the edge of the park. Pretty interesting to discover their government’s undercover agents in the 1970s were fairly incompetent. (And one of the men was a Horvath!)
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After being completely dumbfounded by the oddness that was Memento Park we took the bus back into the city and then attempted to get lunch. Of course it was Sunday so not much was open. What we did come across was a cheap Chinese place on a little side street. Questioning our choice in eating establishment we walked in and proceeded to point and order whatever it was that looked vaguely familiar. The woman at the counter spoke more English than we’d anticipated so communication wasn’t as tricky as anticipated. The real treat came when she put our food on the plates and then stuck them in the microwave. Reheated Chinese food. Oh boy. But it wasn’t too bad, and no one died of horrific food poisoning so chalk it up to an entertaining cultural experience. After we ate lunch we wanted to take a tour of Budapest’s awesome Parliament building. Of course we missed the last English language tour of the day by about a half an hour. Instead we went to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube and marveled at what is supposedly a resort area in the summer but basically looked like a bunch of overgrown tennis courts and lots of shuttered bars and hotels. But the fall leaves were pretty. Later that day we hung out with the Australians and other Americans staying in our hostel and went out to dinner with a French guy who was there as well.

Our last day we had just about run out of things to do and see but we soldiered on. We had yet to see Andrassay Street, a high end shopping district with some of the city’s historical sites, so we walked up that. There were so many Western stores that it was hard to imagine what the city must have been like under communism twenty years ago. We trudged through the misty rain and made it to Hero’s Square at the end of the street. The square is a monument to the 1956 Revolution and is flanked by a few museums and whatnot. We wandered through the square and into City Park which has its own castle, zoo, and circus. We saw the castle, but mostly we just walked around and enjoyed the fall leaves (Rachelle, our resident California girl, especially). After still more walking we ended up back at the Central Market Hall to spend the rest of our Hungarian forint on some pastries. Our train left at 6 Monday night, and we were lucky enough to get a six person compartment to ourselves so we could stretch out. The train lurched its way across the two countries, getting in to Salzburg at 1 AM, a half hour later than it was supposed to be. Luckily, our 8:30 class on Tuesday had been canceled so we unpacked, collapsed, and slept for quite some time. All in all, it was a great trip to someplace that we picked kind of spontaneously. Everyone was really friendly, and it was unlike any other place I’ve been so I’m super happy we went. Today we just bought more-expensive-than-necessary tickets to Florence, Italy for next weekend so more travels to come. For the next week and a half though I’m going to be doing a lot of homework. And we’re all excited for Halloween, Salzburg style.

Tags: Salzburg 09

Grandma’s Chaos Tour

October 12th, 2009 · 4 Comments

We passed our one month mark in Europe last week, and it’s crazy to think we’ve been here for as long as we have. Despite its significance, however, last week went by fairly ordinarily. Wednesday we were treated to a free lunch at a wurst stand which was rather greasy, but good. That night my friends and I made dinner (it seems Wednesday night dinners have replaced Taco Tuesdays), and we had fun making pasta and catching up on gossip. I only have one class on Thursday, and it’s an evening one, so I spent the afternoon searching out the university libraries I’m going to need this semester. I played the role of the confused exchange student very well as I still don’t know how to find books in the teeny tiny Social Sciences library. One day soon I’ll have to summon the courage to enlist the help of a frazzled librarian. Fridays are free, and so some friends and I finally got the kebaps (delicious, cheap, Turkish sandwiches) we’d been craving and then spent the afternoon at Frau Schoettke’s making improvised but quite tasty apple tarts with Kirsten and Rachel.

Rachelle and I attempted to go to bed early Friday night, but 4 am rolled around awfully quickly and the alarm clock was beeping away. Yes, we got up at 4. We had to be on a bus at 5. Somehow no one slept in, and 30 of us were able to get on said bus, passports in hand, and set off on what our tour guide for the weekend, Frau Schoettke, called “Grandma’s Chaos Tour.” The trip lived up to its name very shortly thereafter as Frau Schoettke’s friends began passing out shots to everyone on the bus. At 5:30 in the morning. Oh boy.

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Most of us attempted to sleep on the bus as we drove through Austria in the dark, but soon enough we arrived in Trieste, Italy, where we disembarked to stretch our legs and walk around pretty Castle Miramare on the Adriatic coast. The views were gorgeous and the weather warm so everyone enjoyed it. I had never been to Italy before, so even though it was a short visit I’m excited to be able to check it off my list.
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All too soon it was back on the bus and headed towards Slovenia. Frau Schoettke informed us that Slovenia is one of the ugliest countries, but I didn’t think it was all that bad. The geography definitely changes though, from the mountains and evergreen trees of Austria and northern Italy to hills and scrubby trees. And there’s very little to see, just a handful of houses and a odd abundance of roadside ads for cell phones. We drove straight through Slovenia, and when we got to the border of Croatia we left the European Union and so had to stop at border control. At this point Frau Schoettke informed Rachelle that it was to be her job to use her “pretty eyes to make the border guards stamp our passports.” They don’t normally take the time to stamp everyone’s I guess, and I’m not sure if it was Rachelle batting her eyelashes or the beer Frau Schoettke gave them, but somehow we got stamps from both Slovenia and Croatia. Cool.

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Shortly after we crossed the border we stopped in a small fishing village to eat lunch at a waterfront restaurant. Frau Schoettke had already decided that the food of choice was to be calamari. I ate the pieces that looked like onion rings, after drowning them in tarter sauce, but my friend Phil got all of the pieces that had identifiable squid characteristics. We lingered over lunch, and watched Frau Schoettke drink more and more wine, before finally leaving for our hotel in Umag, Croatia, a few kilometers further down the road.

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Our hotel was a resort, though one mostly shut down for the season. Frau Schoettke has been coming to the beaches here since she was little, so it’s no wonder she loves taking each new semester’s worth of AIFS students. After a minor mishap involving room reservations, we all jumped into our swimsuits and headed to the beach, where some people quickly shed their swimsuits again. Yes, it was a nude beach. And a few of the guys in our group may have been extremely enthusiastic about this. And Frau Schoettke may have encouraged this enthusiasm. A lot. The weather was warm, but it was 5 in the evening and cooling quickly and the water was pretty cold. I got in up to my knees, but a few people managed to legitimately swim in the short time we had before rushing off to a buffet dinner in the hotel. Because the resort is primarily a destination for German/Austrian and Italian tourists, the dinner was an amusing mix of sausages and pasta, but we all ate well and stuffed ourselves with ice cream to top it off. Later that evening we found a taxi driven by one of Frau Schoettke’s friends (Really, who isn’t that woman friends with?) and drove into the little town of Umag itself. Not much was open, but we walked around for a while anyway. Croatia feels like you’re somewhere else. The buildings were just a little rough around the edges, laundry hung out of every window, and I think we saw more cats than people. If that’s eastern Europe, I can’t wait to go back. But we finally found our friends in a bar (well, we heard them before we saw them) and got treated to an entertaining round of interpretive dance by several group members and a middle-aged Croatian man with a ponytail. Too funny. It started to storm shortly thereafter, and we went back to the hotel to watch the lightening from the balcony in our room with some friends. After getting lectured for being too loud by the woman in the room next door (in a language we didn’t recognize), the four of us retreated inside to watch American movies in English with Croatian subtitles. After having been up for almost 24 hours we were so tired that reading the subtitles was a vastly amusing ordeal. In case you were wondering, it seems New Jersey translates to Jerseyu. You would find that funny too if you’d been as tired as we were. Needless to say we fell asleep very quickly that night.
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In the morning we had yet another hotel buffet for breakfast (this time there were crepes! With chocolate sauce!), and then it was back on the bus again. We drove back across the border and into Slovenia where we stopped at a massive cave system. We had to take a little train into the side of the mountain before getting out to walk around. The caves just went on forever. It was cold in there, but we amused ourselves discussing the possibility of death by stalagmite (or stalactite? I still don’t know) were they to fall and what sort of Lord of the Rings characters the various rock formations looked like. After a few hours in the caves, it was time to get on the bus yet again and drive the last few hours of the trip back to Salzburg. By the end of the trip, everyone was going a little stir crazy from being cramped up on the bus so much. Some of us chose to alleviate this through sleep, others through the seemingly continuos consumption of alcohol. So while the trip was chaotic at times, and no one was ever where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be, and I’m still not sure how some of my friends managed to get completely drenched when all they had to do was run from the taxi into the hotel during the storm, the trip was all kinds of awesome. How often can you say you’ve been to four countries in one day? It was a whirlwind, and all of the countries we saw certainly deserve more than a few hours visit, but it was a good start.

We got back to Salzburg to discover the temperature had dropped dramatically, and fall has finally arrived for real. There was snow on the mountains around the city when I woke up this morning, and there is talk we might get some on the ground in the city by the end of this week. Crazy! I like the cold, but I can’t help but miss my nice warm Virginia falls a bit. Now for the rest of this week I just have to stay warm, stay dry, and catch up on homework so that I can enjoy this coming weekend in Vienna!

Tags: Salzburg 09

Surviving Classes and Oktoberfest

October 3rd, 2009 · 2 Comments

As friends back at home studied for midterms, us AIFS kids in Salzburg finally got around to starting classes this past Monday. Classes are sort of strange in that our schedules are all over the place, with some classes being early, some late, some once a week, and some twice a week but at different times and/or in different places. Strange. I’m crazy enough that I’m facing three independent study courses this semester, so I have three fairly large research papers due in December. My time management skills shall be tested as I attempt to get all of that work done, plus other schoolwork, while still traveling and just being in Salzburg. We’ll see how that goes. But really, all of my classes (all political science and history courses) ought to be very interesting, especially as taught from the European perspective. But one class on Tuesday evening somehow took it upon itself to test my fear of heights as well. Immediately after class had ended around 6:45, all of the lights in the building went out, and a group of us discovered the front door was locked from the inside. The building had closed for the night with us still inside. So, being the resourceful/completely moronic students we are, a few of us decided the best way to get out of the building was to climb through a second story window and jump down to the sidewalk below. In full view of the main street and the people waiting at a nearby bus stop, we did just that. A few minutes later we discovered the rest of our group had calmly walked through the unlocked backdoor. Duh.

During the week we continued to find time for fun stuff in between the schoolwork and the ill-advised escapes. Wednesday morning we went for a pastry tasting event that left all of us in sugar comas. We drank hot chocolate and stuffed ourselves with generously-sized free samples of five different Austrian pastries, all of which were wonderful. I hardly ate for the rest of the day. That is, until much later that night when Kirsten was lovely enough to cook dinner for several of us at her homestay apartment. We squished ourselves around the table and had a fun few hours of eating and laughing, even after the light in the living room went out and we found ourselves eating by candelight. Thursday consisted largely of homework, capped off with karaoke night at the local Irish pub. Always an experience.

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On Friday (we only have classes Monday-Thursday) we woke up early and got on the train to Munich. We wound our way through rainy Bavaria until we got to the main train station in Munich and started our tour with Andreas, the same entertaining tour guide who had us climbing mountains during our Salzburg tour weeks ago. He showed us many of the major sites of the city, including the old Nazi parade grounds, the Residenz, and the Frauenkirche. We made it to Marienplatz at exactly noon, so we were just in time to see the glockenspiel play and witness the Bavarian knight knock out his French opponent just as he does high up in the clock tower everyday. We ate lunch at a market that sold everything from pretzels to horse meat, and then Andreas took a handful of us to a store that sells reasonably priced Tracht, traditional Bavarian/Austrian clothing. We had been drooling over all of the brightly colored dirndl dresses at the Salzburg festival for days, so some us were super excited to buy one of our own. Probably ridiculous, and probably something I’ll be hard pressed to find an excuse to wear once I’m back at home, but they’re coming back into fashion over here (as are lederhosen, which some of the guys bought as well), and they were fun to wear around in Munich all day and will be fun to wear here in Salzburg over the next few months. Though I do feel a bit like Little Bo Peep in it. Finally dressed like we belonged there, we then set out find Oktoberfest. We followed the crowds to a huge festival grounds full of carnival rides, games, food stands, souvenir stalls, and of course the requisite beer tents that went on forever. There were so many people that we never did find a place to sit inside a building. We did sit outside for a while though, and it is very surreal to have been a part of such a massive international cultural event. We caught the 9:48 train back to Salzburg having successfully avoided leaving any member of our group of friends asleep on park benches or in the clutches of some drunken Polish creepster, a feat I had deemed improbable at the start of the day. Long, long day, but one brimming with amusing events. This weekend we all have homework staring us in the face, but there is a special event at Salzburg’s museums tonight that we’re going to try and check out. Next weekend Croatia!

Tags: Salzburg 09

And So it Begins

September 17th, 2009 · No Comments

London Skyline
Somehow it just doesn’t seem real that I was getting on a plane to London only a week ago today. I feel like I’ve been away from home for months. In a good way. We’ve crammed so much into such a short amount of time. My first weekend abroad was spent exploring London and getting to know the group of fun people I’m going to be in Salzburg with for the next three months. Jet lag attempted to hold us back, but most of us managed to stay sufficiently awake to avoid getting hit by those always unexpected other-side-of-the-road drivers. We fought The Tired long enough to see some of London’s major touristy spots even while still managing to sneak in a bit of a very much needed afternoon nap. In our free time some of us decided to tour Buckingham Palace as it’s only open to the public through the end of this month. After having seen so many castles long since devoted to tourism, it was a bit strange to walk through the hallways and know that, no matter how glitzy it was, people still lived there. Though I do have to say, the Queen’s backyard was a bit disappointing. It was a large field. I feel as though flowers and hedgerows should have been involved.

Our time in London came to an end far too early in the morning on Sunday. We got up in time to leave our hotel at 5:15 AM. For most us of this meant we were traveling on about ten hours of sleep spread over two or three days. Lack of sleep made the news we got upon getting to the airport, that our luggage van had broken down somewhere along the side of a suburban London highway, all the more depressing. So we sat on the floor of the airport and guzzled coffee. For hours. Finally we greeted the arrival of our rescued suitcases with more enthusiasm than any of London’s sites had gotten out of us. We made our flight with only a little time to spare, and my sleepiness induced crankiness was eased somewhat by the even more exhausting tale of my German seatmate, a girl who had come all the way from Costa Rica via Miami and was finally making her way home to Germany after more than a day of traveling. She still had enough energy to chat, so she told me about Salzburg, and her school, and whether I would understand anything the Austrians said, because “they don’t speak real German.” When we finally got to Munich we had changed time zones yet again, but all of us piled onto a bus that would take us to Salzburg and our home for the next few months.

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It was on the bus that we found out for the first time where and with whom we would be living. Turns out my dorm resembles a bit of an Ikea ad. It’s a whole lot different from the red brick, white columned buildings at Mary Washington, but it will do for now. My roommate, Rachelle, is from California, and we’ve been having a grand time laughing as we figure out what to make of the ridiculous situations we put ourselves in. Our shower is a death trap, our kitchen is inside a closet, and we can’t turn the fan in the bathroom off even if we wanted to. But it’s fun. And I’m loving it. We’ve bonded with the other Americans in the building, and it seems that just today there are Austrian students moving in, so soon enough the dorm will be a interesting mix of people and languages and customs.

Salzburg in the Fog
We had orientation for the first few days that we were here. We learned how to use the bus system, how to find our classes, and spent a few entertaining hours emptying out several stores of their cheapest cell phones. Virtually everyone in the program now has the exact same phone, and how we’re going to tell them apart if we should ever put them down together I have no idea. Our orientation tour of the city showed us how lucky we are to be living in a town that goes back thousands of years. Our overly enthusiastic guide informed us we would be trekking up mountains, girls in flip flops and all, and though we mumbled a bit about the rain and the cold and the endless walking, the views from the hills were stunning. Every time you turn a corner in this city you’re greeted with a new view even more dramatic than the last. Having a fortress on the hill is still something I’m getting used to.

We spent our free time scouting out the cheap yet tasty restaurants, buying bus passes, and figuring out how to get by speaking an awkward combination of German and English. Germish, if you will. Rachelle and I had our first real culture shock experience when we attempted to go grocery shopping. We had been warned that we would have to bag our own groceries. We were prepared for this. We muddled our way through shopping, which is time consuming when you have to guess at what a lot of the items are, and worked up the courage to go up to the register. I have never seen a person scan groceries as quickly as the woman at the check out counter did. As she’s scanning them she’s practically throwing them at us, even though Rachelle is throwing things in our bag as quickly as she can. It was stressful. And afterwards highly amusing. And now we know that we just have to push everything into the cart until after we pay; once that’s done we can walk calmly over to the “bagging area” to organize things and recover from the trauma of watching your groceries moving at the speed of sound. It’s the strange little things like that that keep making me realize we really aren’t at home anymore.

We started intensive German classes this week, and they run through the end of next week. We don’t start our real academic classes until almost October. Three hours a day of grammar is a bit much, but I do know far more of the language than I realized. I’ve started working up the courage to speak German to the Austrians, though they don’t do much for a person’s confidence when they instantly switch to English. All in all though, the Austrians we’ve spoken to have been amazingly friendly despite their reputation as being standoffish. We’ve gotten tips on everything from which train to take to Oktoberfest, to which spicy peppers to avoid eating in our Indian food, to which bus stop to get off at when we’ve looked lost and confused. Some of us had a highly amusing time of it attempting to communicate with a group of older Swiss men at a restuarant, but somehow between our broken German and their handful of English phrases we got quite a bit said. But I feel like something got lost in translation the other day when someone asked me if I was Amish upon finding out I was from Pennsylvania.

I’m starting to feel like I know my way around a bit more, and it’s fun planning our future weekend excursions. We don’t have classes on Fridays so three day travel weekends here we come. Italy! Slovenia! Croatia! Czech Republic! Plans to see them all! Stay tuned.

Tags: Salzburg 09