buggin’ out

I am traumatized.

As you may or may not know, I am obsessed with vending machine coffee. For ten little crowns I can get a mini cappuccino in a plastic cup and go merrily on my way. The comfort of these little caffeine machines are a constant presence–on every floor of my school building, in the metro stations, in the lobby of my dorm.

Now it is 8:30 in the morning. It is finals week, so I slept for a whole four hours last night. I have two papers due tomorrow. Today is a day that I needed to start with a little plastic cup of espresso, so I snuck down to the lobby, hoping no one would see me in my worn out Assumption sweats and unbrushed hair (I made it!). But what do I find as soon I sip away the foamy top layer of my tiny treat?

A BUG. A bug in my treasured little coffee cup.
I may never look at those vending machines the same again. Thank you, Masarykova Kolej, for forcing me to write a non-caffeine fueled paper. This will haunt me forever, or for the next three days at least.


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Let the Countdown Begin

In three weeks I will be in Boston. It is completely unreal that my travels are coming to an end. I remember three weeks before I left for Prague. My friends were all getting ready to go back to school for the semester and I headed to Florida for a week of college tours with my not-so-baby sister and some quality time with the grandparents. Since it was freezing in Florida and my plans for getting some pre-Prague sun were ruined, I spent a lot of time on my laptop googling my future home. I spent hours clicking through pictures, travel blogs, expat sites, getting myself pumped up for my adventure. Those last three weeks were strange—when hours seem to be dragging but days pass in the blink of an eye. Three weeks prior to my Prague departure seemed like a lifetime, but somehow I still managed to find myself in a major time crunch by the end. I’m talking CVS runs the morning of my flight, and a still half empty suitcase while Mom was out starting up the car for the drive to the airport.

The same feeling is starting to hit me now. In twelve days I have to move out of the Prague apartment that has started to feel like home. My photos cover the wall above my bed, groceries, class notes, and souvenirs clutter my desk, everything has its place on my shelves. (Well, not really, but by my standards things are pretty organized in here.) In January, the idea of fitting four months’ worth of clothes into my suitcase was unfathomable. Now I have a new dilemma: I must figure out how to fit four months of my life into home.

We always talk about how Prague isn’t real. These past months have been an alternate reality, running wild in a city where drinking beer before noon is normal, where professors accept mediocrity, where responsibility is a forgotten concept. It isn’t unusual to hear attitudes along the lines of “what happens in Prague…” but I don’t think I want to leave what happened in Prague here. I don’t think any of us will know how much Prague changed us until we’re back home again. And, though on the one hand it turned a group of students into slackers, I like to think that I have learned more important lessons about the world than I could ever have learned in a classroom. I can communicate through language barriers, I can observe cultural differences with respect, I can pack a suitcase in ten minutes. Miriam Beard says it best: “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

On that note, I am going to go do research on atheism in Central Europe. (Fun Fact: the Czech Republic is the 6th most atheist country in the world. It also has some of the lowest crime, poverty, and STD rates in the world.) As final deadlines approach, expect an increased volume of blog posts.

P.S. I started writing a blog post exclusively in honor of my mommy for Mothers’ Day yesterday, but then I got distracted. So here’s the gist of it: Thank you, Mom, for being the inspiration for my semester abroad, for your endless support through the visa application, the hours of packing, and a dwindling bank account, and for being my number one facebook friend. I love you.

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Two posts in one week? Must be finals time.

Let the countdown begin. Two weeks left in Prague. Two weeks until it is time to say goodbye to the people and the city that I have come to love.

The last two nights have been the most wonderful ways to start leaving—making memories that will last forever, making it even more difficult to get on that British Airways flight to Boston. Tuesday night three people in my program, including my very talented roommate, Kate, had a set at one of my favorite bars in Prague. While their show was excellent, the encore during the metro ride home was even better. A ukulele, an accordion, four back-up snappers, and a whole bunch of singers did a spur of the moment acoustic rendition of “Wagon Wheel”, providing entertainment for about 50 unsuspecting Czechs. I still have the song stuck in my head, and I am hoping that it stays there for a long, long time.

Last night was our program-sponsored end of semester party, making it devastatingly real that our time in Prague is coming to an end. We gorged ourselves with traditional Czech food, beer, and celebration—complete with a band, speeches from our friends, and another round of Wagon Wheel. When the party was over we raced to catch the last metro of the night and split up between all of our favorite bars and clubs in the city. I spent the night in the basement of a wine bar that I love. Interestingly, I went to the bar with people who I had barely hung out with before this and got to know some more incredible people. With only two weeks left, I only regret that I have not gotten to know everyone sooner.

I hear there is fabulous weather in Massachusetts these days. And, while Prague is a fabulous city, it can warm up and stop raining any time now. Homework calls, so I will leave you with a song.

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Living Out of My Suitcase: Krakow, Paris, Barcelona

Wow, it’s been almost a month since my last time writing—unbelievable how quickly the time has been going by. So Since then I have taken trips to Krakow, Paris, and Barcelona, and of course had many wonderful days in Prague.

I avoided my entry about Poland for a long time because I wasn’t sure what to say about the trip. The sparknotes version: nine hour bus ride, a country in mourning, Auschwitz tour, nine hour bus ride. Throw in a volcano eruption that looked like it would keep me from seeing my parents and it wasn’t exactly the best weekend of the semester. The week before our program went to Krakow the Polish president, his wife, and almost 100 very important people of the government were killed in a plane crash and the funeral was scheduled for the Sunday of our visit. While the whole thing was incredible to see—hundreds of people waiting in line for a spot outside the funeral mass and an all night vigil on Saturday—it also meant there wasn’t much fun to be had while we were there. On Saturday we went to a church in the city which, according to Hindu mythology, is one of the seven places in the world where there is “chakra”, a source of positive energy that sort of recharges your soul. Our trusty guide, Z, brought us there so that we would be ready for Auschwitz in the morning. I’m not really sure what to say about Auschwitz. It is everything the history textbooks talk about brought to life. Everything is kept just as it was left when the war ended. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t think I will ever want or need to visit a concentration camp again.

Poland was draining and, like I said before, it didn’t help that the volcano would be keeping me in Prague and my parents in Boston that weekend. There was literally a dark cloud hanging over my head and I was not the happiest camper. At the last minute, however, the ash cleared and so, with less than 24 hours notice, Mom, Dad, and I decided the trip was back on. That day happened to be my busiest day of the week with a tour of the Jewish Quarter and tickets to the ballet, so I was a stressed out wreck, but I somehow managed to make it to everything and get ready for Paris. (I am becoming quite proud of my new ability to pack in just minutes.) Paris was completely worth all of the stress—it really lives up to the beauty and romance it is famous for. And it was wonderful to finally see my parents, of course. We tried to fit as many tourist attractions as possible into our little weekend away and somehow managed to pack our days despite a complete lack of planning and my parents’ jet lag.

Though I had taken several weekends away before Paris, this trip was extra important because it was my first time traveling alone, as my parents didn’t arrive until the day after I did. It was scary showing up in a new country entirely alone with just a map and a suitcase. I know about two words of French. The Paris metro is about ten times the size of Prague’s and doesn’t seem to have a single escalator. (I am still trying to figure out how handicapped people get around that city…) I slept on a top bunk in a room with nine strangers. After successfully and safely making it back to my hostel after a night of exploring the city on my own, I decided that traveling alone could actually be enjoyable and was ultimately very empowering. I am glad that I did not have to spend the whole weekend on my own, but the idea of it is certainly not so intimidating anymore—and I realized that I could read a map better than I gave myself credit for.

That may be why after less than a day back in Prague, the travel bug bit me again and I started to look for another trip. And so, on Wednesday I bought myself a seat on a Thursday flight to Spain and booked a bed in the cheapest hostel I could find. In retrospect, the cheap hostel might not have been the best idea—the showers flooded out into the hallway and I didn’t get any sleep thanks to a couple of very noisy roommates, but what can I expect for twelve dollars a night? Barcelona was worth every penny that I won’t be able to spend on food this month. It is the perfect balance between a cosmopolitan city and beach town. The weather was gorgeous and the sangria was delicious. I did expect the Mediterranean Sea to be warmer, but oh well.

It is a bit exhausting to try and remember and retell everything that has happened in the last three weeks. It still hasn’t really hit me that it is May already and my program ends in three short weeks—I feel like we just arrived in Prague. There is still so much I want to see and do in the city, so luckily I will be spending the next three weeks here packing in the Prague adventures and trying to figure out how to say goodbye to a strange city that has become like home.

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“Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while It’s alright you can afford to lose a day or two”: Vienna, Amsterdam, and Midterms

Billy Joel knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Vienna”–and he probably had a friend who was attempting to see all of Europe in less than four months.

A week after returning from Dublin I spend the weekend in Vienna, Austria with my program. There are few things that I enjoy more than five hour bus rides, bonding over gas station snacks and the unsurpassed nap quality that comes from being lulled to sleep by our tour guide, Z. This trip we lucked out with a half hour stop at Excalibur city, complete with wizards and fire-breathing dragon. Though it lacked the unique charm of that rest stop, Vienna was an incredible city! I spent most of the weekend simply walking around, admiring the architecture, and imitating the statues at every possible opportunity.The weather was gorgeous—it’s about time!—and the wine was delicious. We spent the nights in the “Bermuda Triangle” neighborhood, recommended by my politics professor as the neighborhood where students tend to disappear. Luckily, we all made it out alive, and even made some new Austrian friends who attempted to teach us German (while we pretended to be fluent in Czech).

The bus ride home from Austria was much less pleasant than the one there because Monday morning I was tossed back into a reality I hadn’t acknowledged since December. Midterms. Yes, a lovely weekend in Vienna was concluded with studying and a 9 am wake-up call for exam time. Three days, two exams, and a load of laundry later my bags were repacked and I was on a plane to Amsterdam.

I must prelude this story with the fact that there were friends who firmly believed that Rebecca, Jen and I would not be making it back to Prague alive.
Of our four nights in the city, only the first would be generally accepted as a “traditional” (or safe, you decide) way of traveling. The three of us stayed in a lovely little hostel closet with two beds and concrete walls. Fine for one night, generally unpleasant, the widely used means of traveling on a budget. Friday night was when the real adventure began as we trekked across the city for our first shot at couch surfing. This is an online community where people create a profile and then offer or search for a free place to crash for a night or two. When we told our friends that we would be couch surfing, we received less than enthusiastic responses that typically ended in “Well, I hope they don’t kill you.” I will admit that the idea sounds a bit sketchy—but it truly completed our Amsterdam experience. Rather than staying in a cramped hostel with a whole bunch of tourists, we cooked dinner, drank wine, and discussed life with a Dutch (not at all sketchy or murderer-like) student and her friends in an adorable studio apartment where we slept on a bed bigger than our entire room in the hostel.

Okay, done with my free promotion of couch surfing (try it!!). Aside from its wonderfully hospitable people, Amsterdam is a city that I am still fascinated by. It’s not always popular for the most morally sound culture—marijuana, prostitutes, crazy bicyclists, but it is just these things that make it so interesting. Contrary to popular belief, people do not walk around high all the time. The “coffee shops” where it is legal to sell and use weed are frequented by tourists, not Dutch people, who tend to avoid the drug. And prostitution is considered an entrepreneur’s profession; the women rent a window, find clients, and pay their taxes at the end of the year. Now, I am not necessarily advocating for prostitution and legalizing drugs, but I cannot help but appreciate the casual attitude the Dutch have towards allowing people to do what they’d like, capitalize on it, and their prioritize issues differently. For example, the tax money earned from the sale of marijuana goes towards the fight against hard drugs.
Imagine, a fully functioning, normal, and economically thriving society despite the subcultures of sex, drugs, and diversity.

Besides, these things are certainly not all that Amsterdam had to offer. Despite terrible weather, we rented a peddle boat and had a self guided tour of the extensive canal system and saw the Rijksmuseum, where there are many paintings by Rembrandt. Our cultural activities were limited by the massive crowds of tourists everywhere, trying to get into museums and out of the rain. The absolute highlight of my weekend, and possibly my semester, was spending three glorious hours biking around the city in true Dutch fashion. And when I say “true Dutch Fashion” I mean that we were terribly obvious tourists who don’t know the proper way to ride a bike. Amsterdam is no place for a leisurely ride—we were usually going faster than the cars (when we weren’t forced into sharing a lane with them) and pedestrian casualties suddenly became a legitimate fear. The bike rental should come with a warning that, though a lovely way to see the city, is way harder than it looks. Seriously, everyone should have been way more concerned about my safety on the bike than couch surfing, but either way, I survived and am finally back for a long and relaxing travel break in Prague.

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Cheers, Prost, Na zdraví, Skål, Sláinte!

When I booked my Ryan Air flight from Prague to Ireland three months ago, I figured I was signing up for quite an interesting week with my cousin and her friends from Germany. I can now say fairly confidently that there is little one can possible do to prepare oneself for March 12-18th in Dublin.

I should amend that statement by admitting that our first “adventure” was entirely my fault. As the trip was booked months ago by the girls in Germany, I somehow lost the name of the bed and breakfast we were staying in and didn’t think of it until I was halfway to the airport. And, as can be expected as a time like this, my trusty Vodafone stopped working as soon as it left the Czech Republic. Luckily, Rebecca was on my flight and planning on spending the first night with me in Dublin, so she was able to keep me calm (and she had a bag of wafers, always a comfort food, in her suitcase). Hours later, too many euros spent on internet cafes and calls to the states, and a massive bag of Doritos later, Rebecca, Leanne, Amy, Brittany, and I were finally united at Donnybrook B&B.

The stress of getting there was definitely worth it—Dublin is one of my new favorite cities. We spent the week exploring the city, enjoying homemade Irish breakfasts, hopping around a variety of cool bars (and even checked out an Irish dance club), and met a bunch of very interesting people from all over the world. Of course we made it to all of Dublin’s most important tourist destinations—the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery just to name a couple—and took a spontaneous day trip across the country to Galway. (I even got to meet Rebecca’s boyfriend from California!) Galway was beautiful and reminded me of the seaside towns of New England; I wish we had more than just an afternoon to spend there, but now I guess I’ll just have to get myself back to Ireland!

It is nearly impossible to put St. Patrick’s Day into words. The Irish really do know how to throw a party for their patron. (Fun Fact: March 17th is the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death, who is honored for brining Catholicism to Ireland. I spent my entire trip trying to figure this out.) Everyone in Dublin woke up early to deck themselves out in head to toe green and grab a spot on O’Connell Street for the parade. Unfortunately we spent a bit too much time on our face paint and temporary tattoos, so our view was blocked by the lucky little kids who could still perch on mom and dad’s shoulders. After the parade we found Doyle’s Pub and spent the rest of the day (and night) celebrating. (I am opting to leave out all of the gory details—all that matters is we all survived ☺ )

It seemed less likely that I would survive my trip back to Prague. My flight left Dublin at 8:30 am the morning of the 18th—not even enough time to get the “Kiss me I’m Irish” tattoo off my hand. I landed somewhere in Germany, took a bus to Frankfurt, a train to Nuremburg, a bus to Prague, a metro to Masarykova Kolej, and was snuggled back in my own bed around 11 pm—which is where I stayed for the rest of the weekend nursing a cold. Had to crash eventually, I suppose.

My trip to Ireland was surprisingly refreshing. I got to see Leanne, the only family member I’ve seen in almost two months and the first time I’ve seen her since this summer in Hampton. We are so lucky now that Germany and the Czech Republic are so much closer than California and Massachusetts, and it was comforting to talk about our families and reminisce about when we were little. And, I hate to say it, but it was INCREDIBLE to be back in the English-speaking world. I was starting to forget how easy it could be to order dinner or ask for directions. It was kind of strange to look at an advertisement on the street and understand what it was saying. Though there were a few times I was temped to greet a cashier with an enthusiastic “dobry den,” “hello” is so much less intimidating. I am fighting a loosing battle with Czech, but it has instilled in me a major appreciation of English. Also—no offense to the Praguers—but Irish people are so nice! It was a struggle, but I have gotten used to and am attempting to understand the attitudes of the Czech people. Between that and the language barrier, it is difficult to get help in this city. In Ireland, bus drivers made sure we knew where we were going before we got off and restaurant service was unlike any I’ve had so far in Europe.

Though I loved Ireland and it was a nice break from Prague, this city still has my heart. The Easter Markets starting in Old Town Square—which is not complete with all kinds of delicious food stands and even a petting zoo—and Spring has finally arrived. I don’t want to jinx it just yet, but my winter coat hasn’t been out all week!

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Peace, Love and Praha

In the weeks leading up to Prague I made myself a promise—do something cool everyday, something that I can’t do at home, something entirely unique to Here and Now. Everyday is an adventure here and every week I am able to cross something off my To Do List for Prague. I’ve toured castles, explored graveyards, wandered art exhibits. I try new foods, find new neighborhoods, search for the perfect view of the city. Two of my favorite places that I’ve found are touristy, yes, but can’t be found on a map and aren’t mentioned in the history books. In fact, it took about an hour of wandering around and “I know we’re in the right general area…” to stumble upon the Lennon Wall and the Love Locks.

In the 1980’s, when Prague was still under a communist regime, young people would come to this wall and cover it with graffiti inspired by John Lennon and the Beatles. Every night the police would paint over the wall, only to be replaced with more expressions of peace and love the next day. The wall has always been private property, but the owners allowed the original dissenting students to decorate it with their flowery ideals and continue to allow people to add to the wall’s collection of graffiti. It was illegal to play music like Lennon’s and this public expression of subversive ideals was enough to be put in jail. The wall continues to serve as a reminder of the social and political suffering that the Czechs endured, and shows the power of nonviolent rebellion.

In keeping with the theme of the neighborhood, right around the corner from the Lennon Wall is Prague’s “love locks”. The tradition is to put your love’s name on a lock, attach it to the fence, and throw the key into the canal. So romantic. On the walls around the gate people have drawn on locks or written messages to their sweethearts. Before I leave Prague, I’ll be back to leave my mark and make sure Prague never forgets how madly in love I am.

With temperatures in Prague hanging out around freezing still, there is only so much outdoor wandering I can handle a day. Sometimes just the walk from metro to metro is too much to handle, so I have been on a mission to find every hidden café and coffee shop in the city. I have a new favorite just a block away from my school building where I go to do homework. There is no time that I am more content than when I am tucked away in a cute little corner with a double espresso and a pile of postcards. There are the moments when I have no greater ambition in life than to wander the world with my journal and a bottomless latte.

Mír a Láska.

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