Monday, June 29, 2009

Recaps: Brussels

Our trains from Switzerland into Belgium took most of the day. By the time we arrived in Brussels, it was dark outside. The part of town we were in was a bit sketchy, too, so I was glad when we discovered that our hostel was only a half-block away from the train station. We dropped our stuff off and went around the corner to buy a delicious pizza dinner, which we brought back to the hostel to enjoy. One unique thing about the Brussels hostel was that we had a private room, which was more than excellent. It was sparsely furnished - a bunk bed, a plastic patio table and two plastic chairs, and a lamp occupied all the available space - but just having the room to ourselves lifted our spirits tremendously. Without much ado we crashed for the night.

The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast (a bowl of frosted flakes and a piece of bread), where we met Steven. You'll see Steven if you watch our videos. He's our age, a German major, and has been living in Vienna, Austria for a little over a semester. He's pretty cool, as well as a total linguistic nerd like me. On his suggestion, the three of us headed out to a car museum, which was interesting. Well, Steven and I thought it was interesting, anyway. Kristina rapidly became bored with the whole thing, so we cut our visit short. After that, we wandered around the city for a while, discovering odd sort-of playground type things, as well as getting cones of Belgian fries with strangely named sauces. (These fries are something else. They are dense, fried about three times over and absolutely coated with salt, and probably the most popular food in the city. Despite this being something like our entire lunch, the only one of us who even finished his was Steven, who got a small instead of a large.)

Brussels is not the prettiest or cleanest city in the world; we saw more than one fountain with all kinds of garbage clogging it. But it has a sense of humor. For example, the most famous site in Brussels is the Peeing Boy Statue, which shouldn't be as famous as it is - just a plain statue of perhaps a two- or three-year-old peeing water into a fountain. One night, when the three of us went to dinner together, we found another statue of a dog lifting its leg against a lamppost. Not a fountain, or anything worth going to find. Just a statue - lit up by a light with multiple shifting colors. To make sure you didn't miss it, I guess. Man, those Belgians are strange. :P

Overall I enjoyed my time there. The next morning, we caught our flight back to Ireland to see Mom and David.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Recaps: Zurich and Munich

Zurich, Switzerland
When Kristina and I planned our trip, we found that there was no direct train from Bern into Munich, so we decided to take a few-hour break in Zurich first. We caught an early train out of Bern and had an uneventful train ride into Zurich.

When we arrived, we wandered up the main road to find, essentially, nothing. We wanted to find some lunch, but for a pretty long way, there were no restaurants... or anything else, for that matter. There were few shops; no churches, parks, or anything else of note jumped out at us. We finally found some food (we split a plate of spaghetti), but after staring out the window at a quiet intersection, we eventually decided that we'd just catch the next train out to Munich. So all told, we only spent maybe 2 or 3 hours in Zurich. Probably not enough time to form a proper impression of the city, but we did need to move on to Munich.

We hopped on a train and crossed the border into Germany.

Munich, Germany
When we arrived in Munich's main train station several hours later, we thought we'd be able to find our hostel, no problem. After all, my directions were clear and concise, and the hostel's owners expected us to make it there in about five minutes. So we grabbed a map from the station, only to become immediately confused because, for the life of us, we couldn't find the street we wanted on the map. After walking up and down a busy sidewalk, we finally asked a pair of women if they knew where we wanted to be. At first, they told us they couldn't help us, but after we thanked them and walked away, they actually ran after us and started examining our map - and fortunately, pointed out the street we wanted. It was QUITE close to the train station after all.

The unique aspect of our stay in the Munich hostel was the fact that they had Kristina and I sleeping next to each other in a double bed, instead of two single beds. This wasn't a problem - the beds were wide, pink, and comfortable - just interesting. I liked the hostel overall. It was very clean and pretty.

We spent a lot of our day touring Munich inside the Nymphenburg Palace, which was comprised of the main palace, as well as three or four restored guest homes and a couple of lakes covered with birds. (The video on YouTube about the diving bird, as well as one in the main palace and one showing the carriages are all from the grounds of the Nymphenburg). It was lovely, and the grounds were absolutely enormous.

That night, two things happened. First of all, we saw this awesome string quartet under a bridge, and they played excellent music. The violinist in particular was very good, moving with his instrument dramatically and playing quite complicated solos. The group played everything from classical to modern pop music, and we enjoyed standing there and listening for a good half hour or so. Secondly, we got a box of fries from McDonald's (don't judge, we needed the pick-me-up) and then Kristina lost the map in their bathroom. So we thought we knew where we were going and that we could get back to the hostel without the map, but we just ended up going completely the wrong direction. Proof that God looks out for us: We ran into a tourist who didn't know which direction to go anymore than we did, but he actually had an extra map and gave it to us! That was fantastic, and I navigated us back home that night.

Next up: Brussels.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Recaps: Bern

Bern, Switzerland
Kristina and I arrived in Bern mid-afternoon on a Saturday, to find that, once again, the directions I'd copied from the hostel's website were a bit unhelpful. They instructed us to get on a particular tram, but gave little to no indication where the tram station might be. So we set off in a random direction, hoping that we'd find street signs, but all we really managed to find was a residential area. After we turned around, though, we ran into a few middle-aged women who, despite not speaking a word of English, we got directions from. (They say "ciao" in German-speaking countries too, interestingly. Must've borrowed it from the Italians.)

Our hostel, once we found it, instantly made a better impression on us than the Parisian one. It was clean, roomy, and comfortable. The staff was friendly, spoke great English, and gave us a map and information about the town. After we settled in, we wandered around a bit, but the streets were very quiet and most of the shops were closed.

The next day, EVERYTHING was closed, since it was Sunday. A bit bummed out because we could foresee nothing to do with all the shops closed, and no particular attractions in Bern, we went into the church we'd decided on for morning Mass. That, too, was silent and empty, and I was beginning to wonder if we'd arrived at the wrong time when a young priest walked up to us and said something in German. We shook our heads, and told him we only spoke English - and to our surprise, he answered not only in perfect English but with hardly a trace of an accent. He explained to us that because it was Palm Sunday, Mass would begin half an hour later - and also downstairs. We followed him down a winding flight of stairs into a cold, cavernous basement of a room... but it was also fully furnished as a church, complete with altar, pews, and a very small organ. He explained to us that Mass was held here throughout Lent, but today, we'd only begin downstairs, then go outside and up to the main church in the Palm Sunday procession. In concern that we only spoke English, this amazing man also found a woman, Margot, who agreed to translate parts of the Mass for us!

The Mass was lovely, as well as interesting because, in the lack of palm branches, they handed out sprigs of holly instead. Also, at the conclusion of the service, the priest said, in English, that there would be a coffee and breakfast across the street - something he only did for the two of us, as the rest of the congregation spoke German. :) We, of course, went to the breakfast - which was mainly coffee, tea, and chocolate Easter eggs.

Margot, as it turns out, is an art history professor at the university in Bern, and it was her pleasure to show us around the town, and particularly the formerly-Catholic-now-Reformed cathedral in the middle of town. We walked around both the outside and inside of the church, learning far more about architecture and the old protocols for building a cathedral than I ever thought I'd know. We inspected carvings, stained glass, the columns, the ceiling.... It was fascinating. The three of us went to lunch across the street from our hostel, and then said our farewells.

We took a siesta at the hostel, then got dinner - cheese fondue. It was my first experience with non-chocolate fondue, and to be honest, it's not my favorite. Kristina was a little cheesed-out by it as well. But it was pretty good, and a quiet end to a quiet day.

The next day we went briefly to Zurich, Switzerland, then Munich, Germany.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recaps: Part 1: Paris, France

So, I know that I've been utterly and woefully neglecting this poor blog ever since I went on my trip, so I'm going to try and recap what Kristina and I did in each city. I apologize right now, because my memories have already faded, and I'm probably going to forget a lot of stuff that happened, but I'll do my best. And I'll come back later and fill in any information I remember later, too.

We took the train from Cork into Dublin. This was our first of many, many experiences with the train system throughout Europe, and we had our shiny new Eurail Passes validated at the Cork station. I loved watching the Irish scenery fly past our window, greener than green, with horses, cows, and sheep at frequent intervals. When we arrived in Dublin, we took the convenient shuttle straight to the airport, which took, to our surprise, nearly an hour. Fortunately, we'd left plenty of buffer time, and still arrived in plenty of time to catch our first Ryanair flight into Paris.

By the time we got to Paris, it was quite late, and the shuttle into the city from the airport took nearly as long as the one in Dublin. Fighting off exhaustion, we hunted down the Parisian metro, on which we promptly went the wrong direction. Unfortunately, Paris's metro is the most unforgiving of all the ones we encountered, and we were forced to pay again in order to get on the correct one. By the time we made it to the right metro stop, it was about 1:30 in the morning, and we didn't have a clue which way to go to get to our hostel. Fortunately, we ran into a small pack of college kids who knew where we wanted to be - good thing, too, because I probably would have walked right past it. From the outside, it just looks like a bar. Which it is. It also happens to have a damp, unkempt courtyard out the back door, with stairs leading to probably twenty or so cramped, bed-filled rooms beyond.

Sorry. As you might guess, I'm not a big fan of our Parisian hostel. The whole place only had one functional shower to its name, which you had to go outside to access. It had no lockers, twelve beds in our small room, and the rooms were left unlocked most of the time, because there were only two keys. They did provide breakfast free of charge, but they were stingy even with that.

Anyway. We headed out the next morning, immediately in search of the famous Eiffel Tower. Having obtained a decent map, we found it in short order, along the River Seine. We also saw a long rack of identical bikes that the city makes available to anyone who cares to use them; we played with the idea of hopping on a couple, but they apparently required a mysterious card that we had no idea how to get. We got to the Eiffel Tower (see video), which was pretty awesome, if tiring to climb. Additionally, we saw the Louvre, and a bunch of buildings in between that we thought might be the Louvre but weren't - one of these was the Museum of Modern Art (we didn't go in, but wanted to.)

Paris is a very awe-inspiring place. People call it romantic, but I didn't feel that so much as its grandeur, the way everything towers over you. It's all elegance and beauty, but I felt like an outsider there, very much a tourist and not at all a part of the environment. Paris is to other cities what a supermodel is to other women - lofty and beautiful, but not familiar.

After our failed, hasty expedition to the Notre Dame (again, check out the videos), we took some roundabout trains into Bern, Switzerland.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Safely in Paris

For the benefit of all who worry, Kristina and I are safely in Paris. Big day today.

Staying safe, being smart. This computer sucks. Write later.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Video-Blog Begun!!

Kristina and I have begun a video-blog for our trip - you can find our videos here:

Hope you enjoy. We are complete dorks, I know. :P

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friend-filled Ireland

Ever since St. Patty's Day, I've been hanging out with Mike, Dave, and Kristina a TON. The four of us get along famously, and it's tremendously enjoyable to have guys to hang out with.

Last Thursday, the four of us hung out at Kristina's place. We watched Father Ted (have you heard of this show? It's an Irish comedy following the life of a Catholic priest. I was expecting to be offended, to be honest, but it's actually not bad at all), ate frozen pizza, and drank wine. There was a small mishap involving the mixing of red and white wine, but overall it was a lot of fun.

This week has been filled with a historical figure known as Michael Collins. If you don't know who Michael Collins is, he was basically the leader of the Irish fight for independence from Britain in the early 20th century. He helped organize the Irish militia, gathered intelligence, was present at the formation of the treaty with Britain, and was assassinated at the age of 31. The Cork Opera House is showing a musical based on his life, and the four of us, plus a guy named Nevin, went to see it last night. I thought it was great; the music is still stuck in my head. To get us ready for the musical, the guys decided to show Kristina and me the movie by the same name (Michael Collins) on Monday night. Mike and Dave, both history buffs, would not be quiet for the life of them during the entire film... but at least they didn't talk during the musical.

All my classes are finished! I know, crazy, right? I have until next Thursday to write my paper for my Human Sexuality class, and I have 3 exams when I return in May, but other than that my obligations to UCC are complete. The system strikes me as a little strange, but it works out grand for visiting students, many of whom are taking full advantage of the month off to travel.

Kristina's and my trip around Europe begins in less than a week! We're flying into Paris late next Thursday. I am so excited, but Kristina is practically bouncing off the walls thinking about it. Now that I've made these new friends, I wish they could come with us, but they both have other plans. (We're thinking of doing video-blogs each evening, but I'm going to try and write a journal entry for each day as well while we're traveling).

I have to meet Kristina and Dave shortly, so I must bid adieu for now. Sorry about my lax updating schedule - it's hard to remember to write everything down sometimes!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Patty's Day

Yesterday was an absolutely brilliant day. St. Patrick's Day for the win!

So Kristina, my two new friends Mike and Dave, and I decided we would meet up at noon at Mike's place before the parade began at one. Another girl, Avril, was also there; she's a redhead, very nice, and a Brit. Amazingly, all of us were on time - even Dave, who had to drive into town from his home in Blarney.

When we walked onto Grand Parade (that's the name of the street - it never occurred to me before the coincidence there), the place was absolutely packed. Half of the county must have been crowded into City Center, and due to this huge number of people, we almost immediately lost Kristina, who had stopped to buy a green hat from one of the many vendors who had set up shop along the way. She found us again, though, and we actually managed to get decent positions along the parade route, towards the beginning. The parade, unlike everything else that is Irish, started smartly at one o'clock.

What surprised me was how quiet everything was. I mean, there was plenty of normal-speaking-voice level chatter, but hardly any of the floats or groups inspired shouts or cheers or even really applause from the crowd. Maybe it's an American thing to be noisy at parades? I don't know, but I was pretty weirded out. There were cool floats though - a huge water dragon whose head moved around, occasionally swooping into the crowd; a giant robot controlled by what I was told were Star Trekkies; and some random alien-shaped balloons. Most of the people were on foot - a few weren't even dressed up - and the whole affair was decidedly low-tech in comparison to what might be put on in the United States. I'm sorry to keep thinking in terms of comparisons, but I rather expected it to be like other parades I've seen... and it just wasn't. It wasn't bad, or not fun - it was just different.

The parade lasted about an hour, and then the five of us wandered off to find some food. We ended up at Four-Star Pizza, where we got a massive amount of food for 20 euro, and ate it in a green, grassy park I'd never seen before. It overlooked the city, which made for a completely gorgeous view. I can't believe I forgot my camera yet again... argh. But I could see the cathedral, and the bell tower, and a couple miles of residential areas and small businesses from the high spot on which we sat. We all sat happily for a good two hours, trading stories, "shooting the breeze," as they say. The sun was shining, and it was lovely, warm, and comfortable; I couldn't have asked for better company, either. What was interesting to me was the huge diversity of places the five of us came from. Mike is from California and goes to school in Maryland. Dave is born and bred a Corkonian, and was the only Irishman among us. Avril came from England, about 20 miles away from London. Kristina is from Michigan, and I of course am from Mississippi and go to school in Oklahoma. It's amazing to me how we all came together, despite our different backgrounds.

We finally left the grassy slope, and unfortunately Avril had to leave at that point to get homework done. The four of us remaining walked back to the City Center, to the courthouse, where Mike was meeting a few friends of his. The courthouse steps, oddly, were full of drunken college students - and Mike's 3 friends were no exception. They had greasy pizza boxes and some kind of alcohol wrapped in a jacket sleeve to hide the label. One of the girls was Mike's particular friend, and he seemed a little anxious to find her so trashed. We followed them into a different park, this one right in the middle of the city... which was also full of drunk college kids. It wasn't as if there were fights going on, but the majority of people there were dressed gaudily and had unpleasant expressions on their faces. I wouldn't have felt safe in there by myself, and I deliberately stayed close to Mike and Dave. When we were getting ready to leave, Mike decided to stay behind with his drunken friends; I guess he was still worried about the one girl. I don't blame him.

Dave, Kristina, and I, then, the only remaining members of the group, trotted off with a scheme in mind to feed the ducks and swans at the Lough near Kristina's place. We went to Lidl, bought three loaves of bread at 60 cents each, and then went back to Kristina's place to hang out for a little while before going back to the Lough. Well, "a little while" turned into a couple of hours, complete with making toast that I suggested as a result of staring at the loaves of newly acquired bread. We sat and talked for a long time, periodically idly debating whether we should get up again and go feed the swans and ducks. By the time we finally got out the door again, it was after eight o'clock and very dark outside. The ducks were totally disinterested in our bread, and it took us quite a while to find some swans who would take it from us. It was still a lot of fun though, and Kristina and I were giggling (probably a little too much, haha) at the grunting sounds the swans made as they ate.

We finally got rid of that massive amount of bread and called up Mike again, who'd eventually left the drunks and gone back home, only to find a huge, noisy party at his apartment. When we got back there, he was sitting outside looking gloomy. Fortunately, the day was not yet over. (Yeah, I know. You're telling ME it was a long day). We walked down the street, got some Chinese food, then got in Dave's car and went to yet another grassy area. This one was peaceful, dark, on the river, and nobody disturbed the four of us at all. It was also quite cold, and I wasn't particular dressed for the occasion, but that was all right. We had Chinese food, after all, and I was with people who were (and are) some of the most awesome I have met.

After we left, we drove back to the parking lot of Lidl, where Dave and Mike were going to drop us off, but when we got there, the whole place was filled with smoke. Dense, white smoke. It turned out that a chimney was blocked and nearly on fire, right next door to Dave's grandparents' place. We called the fire brigade after talking to the man who lived in that house. We also knocked on his next-door-neighbor's door, who seemed confused and peeved that we were disturbing him to tell him that sparks were flying onto his roof. (Go figure, right?)

It was only after this, and meeting Dave's grandparents briefly, that Kristina and I went back to her place. We studied for our exam, which was the next day, and went to bed around midnight. (I didn't much fancy walking back home 30 minutes in the middle of the night).

So yes. That was my sober St. Patrick's Day. I loved every minute of it. :D

Monday, March 16, 2009

Kinsale and a concert

Sorry it's been so long since I've updated. School work is finally coming to a head, and I have two tests and an essay due this week. So unfortunately, this might not be a very long entry.

New things:
I went to Kinsale on Saturday with Kristina. Susan was supposed to come too, but that ended up not happening because she didn't feel well. Also, the original plan was to go to Kinsale the Friday before that, but the weather was bad. So we did it this time. I don't know if we're ever going to get to Killarney. We're running out of time before the month off and major traveling happens. :D

Anyway, so Kinsale was really nice. The weather was great - sunshiny and warm. Also, Kinsale is right on the water, and there were lots of sailboats and hills and a very local feel to the town in general. It's a perfect tourist locale, and they take advantage of it. There are bed and breakfasts every few feet, it seems like. We got a lot of nice pictures - those should go up on facebook soon.

I invited Mike over for a movie night one night; we watched stand-up Robin Williams, and that was fun. I've also been getting to know his friend Dave, who is an uber-nerd, but very cool to talk to. He's been helping me a bit with my Irish. :)

The concert was last Friday, and I think it went pretty well. It was held in City Hall. We performed 10 pieces in all, with interludes of string quartet, flute, and piano. One of the pieces, Dulaman, is in Irish, and Tom, our director, was slightly obsessive about making that one absolutely perfect, even though I could hardly understand what it was he wanted us to do differently. But overall, I think the concert went better than most of the rehearsals, which was highly gratifying, and it was a lot of fun as well.

I've got my Eurail pass now, which is exciting. Kristina and I are thinking we'll take the train up to Dublin the first day, when we fly out of there to Paris. We have 10 days of train travel available to us, and we're not using all of them, so we can indulge that way while we have the chance.

That's all for now - I'm sorry I don't have more time to write at the moment. Love to all!

Friday, March 6, 2009

An excellent few days

The last few days have been really cool. I've had a lot going on.

So, on Tuesday evening, I went with Susan to choir rehearsal, from which I left early. Despite the concert being next week, we still received new music at that rehearsal. It's fine, though, it's mostly pretty easy stuff. Anyway, after I left choir, I went straight to the comedy hypnotist show, where I was meeting Kristina.

The place was packed. Held in the same room where the orientation for foreign exchange kids was held back in January, there were just as many people in there this time. The show started very shortly after I arrived, and the hypnotist was a dark-haired, quick-fire man, well capable of keeping the attention of the hundreds of students in the room. About thirty students volunteered to be hypnotized - among them, Kristina. He told them to close their eyes and squeeze their hands together, all the while talking to them, telling them to keep squeezing more and more tightly, to clear their minds, etc etc. You could tell some people were taking his suggestions to heart and others weren't - for instance, Kristina's fingers were turning red and white with the pressure she was applying, while a girl in front of me had her hands so loosely intertwined that there was a gap between them. Then the hypnotist walked behind each of them and laid them down on the floor. Some people were eliminated from the line-up at this point because they were neither hypnotized nor becoming that way. Others seemed to actually fall asleep. Then the hypnotist started taking them through the show. At first everything was a group activity - it's really hot, it's really cold, something stinks, you're a class of kindergartners, etc. Then he started having them do individual feats, and it began to be obvious that these people were not just pretending to be under the influence of his suggestions. The most striking thing, to me, about hypnotized people is that, no matter what they do, they never laugh at themselves. Not once.

So there was this sequence where all of the people on stage were convinced that the people in the audience were off-duty soldiers, and they were our superiors. They were supposed to order us around, tell us to do push-ups, and so on. After a few minutes of this, Kristina walked up to me and barked at me to stand at attention. I didn't stand, but instead sat up straight in my chair and saluted her, grinning at her. Of course to me this was a big joke - nobody here was a soldier, and the whole thing was more than a tad ridiculous. But instead of grinning back at me and trying to get me to play along, Kristina's whole demeanor was instead incredibly stern, and I swear she was actually insulted by the fact that I didn't stand right away. Taken aback, I did as she asked, and she told me to drop and give her five. Which I did - or tried to. She shoved me down so hard with her foot on my back that I couldn't do the push-ups properly, and then she actually pushed my head in the ground, apparently angry that I was doing wimpy push-ups. I wasn't hurt, just surprised.

Generally I thought the whole thing was pretty entertaining. One guy danced with a broom to an Elvis Presley song, another was convinced that a mop was Angelina Jolie, and a third thought he was Rocky Balboa. Kristina was kind of angry about the whole thing after it was over, though, and doesn't want to repeat the experience.

On Wednesday, the two of us went to our usual stand-up comedy night at Club Aras in the Student Center. This time, though, when I walked in, I found Kristina sitting at a table with one of the student comedians. His name is Dave, and he is well-suited to his hobby. It's pretty much impossible for him to talk about anything without joking about it, and due to this, we had a great time. Kristina really couldn't hear him say anything without bursting into laughter, so we mainly listened to him, and the chief part of the interactions were between Dave and me - which is unusual... I'm normally the quiet one. Kristina would probably have talked more if she could have got a breath in between laughing. :P

On Thursday, there was another choir rehearsal. Not very many people showed up - maybe a quarter of the choir - but that was fine, since it meant that the altos got to go over the parts that confused them. Certainly helped me out, at any rate - I'd missed half the rehearsals by not joining until later anyway. After we were done rehearsing, Tom (the director) showed us some YouTube videos of different awesome musicians. I showed the choir the video that Katie Baker, my roommate back home, made with the track of her choir singing "Water Night" by Eric Whitacre. It was good times, and I enjoyed myself.

Yesterday was a lot of fun! Due to bad weather, Kristina and I decided not to go to Kinsale this weekend. Instead, we met at school, ate Subway for lunch, and then went to see Watchmen at a cinema in the city center. The movie was both awful and brilliant, terrible and good at the same time. Out of the whole cast, everyone's status as a protagonist or villain was ambiguous, except perhaps for the main two. And it was oh-my-gosh violent. I lost count of the number of times I had to close my eyes.

After the movie, we weren't sure what our plans were, but we decided just to head back to campus, so we went to the Student Center and found my friend Michael from my Human Sexuality class, hanging out with three other guys (Keane [sp?] and Dave [not the same one as the comedian]). Having nowhere to be, we sat and chatted with them for a good two hours before the Student Center closed. Then they took us to Lennox's, which is a "chipper" (a fish-and-chips place). We brought the food back to Michael's place, where the four of us (Keane had to leave) traded stories and got to know each other. It was SO nice to hang out with a couple of guys for once. I didn't realize how much I'd missed male company. After dinner, the guys headed off to see Watchmen themselves, and Kristina and I each went home.

So that's been my week! I'm pleased it's been such a nice one. :)