Sunday, December 21, 2014

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Well, my time abroad has officially come to an end. I'm no longer spending my nights in Berlin, taking the weekends to travel the world. I can't take a half-hour subway ride to the Berlin Wall anymore, or order croissants at local bakeries in the morning. I won't spend my free time with the girls I've become super close with this semester, or take class field trips to a brewery. As of this weekend, I'm back in America with my loving family, sweet boyfriend, and abundance of Chipotle and Starbucks shops.

Coming back to America has been bittersweet for sure. Studying abroad definitely exceeded all of my expectations. Berlin proved to be the perfect place for me to spend my time in Europe. I know that not everybody in my study abroad program fell in love with Berlin as hard as I did, but I simply couldn't get enough of Berlin's incredible history, beautiful buildings, unique culture, delicious food. I was amazed every time I passed fragments of the Berlin Wall or Hitler's old bunker. I could stare at the Berlin Cathedral and Reichstag (parliament building) for hours. I fell hard for Berlin, and distance is really making me miss my temporary home.

Not everybody has a great study abroad experience, so I'm extremely lucky to have had a memorable and incredible four months abroad. I travelled Europe and visited England, France, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, as well as many cities in Germany. I witnessed the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, toured several Christmas markets, drank two liters of beer at Oktoberfest, went clubbing in a thermal bath in Budapest, and ate snails in France. I never expected to visit half of my destinations, but I wouldn't change my itinerary if I could. I also never expected to meet such incredible and friendly people who made my experience a million times better.

I will miss Germany and everything Europe has to offer, like cheap travel and incomparable bread. But I'm also relieved to be home. I missed my family, friends, and boyfriend every day. The pangs of homesickness eased a bit with time but never fully went away when I was abroad. I can't even describe my joy at seeing my family at the airport when I got home, accompanied by my boyfriend holding a bouquet of beautiful red roses. Talking to my loved ones in person beats Skype conversations every day. Plus, now I won't take free water at restaurants for granted, and I have a newfound appreciation for free bathrooms in America. I cringed every time I had to dish out 50 cents for a public bathroom in Germany.

Berlin will forever hold a special place in my heart and I know I'll be back someday. For now, though, I'm enjoying my time at home, in my own bed.  Oh, and I'm still recovering from jet lag. Five days later and I still get tired by nine p.m.

Thanks for reading, as always!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Photo Diary: Dresden, Germany

During my very last week abroad, only one city remained on my "places to visit" list: Dresden, Germany. Dresden is supposedly one of the prettiest cities in Northern Germany, and since the bus ride from Berlin to Dresden is only a few hours, I knew I'd regret not visiting.

My final exams were scheduled before those of my friends, so I travelled to Dresden alone after completing my finals. Of course I wish some of my friends could've gone with me, but I actually don't mind traveling alone. I lived by myself in New York City this summer, and I find that exploring a new place on your own is a great way to gain confidence and independence. Plus, I'm able to do the things that I actually want to do, on my own time and without having to compromise.

Dresden was just as beautiful as I expected, full of old churches and rustic buildings. I kept thinking that Dresden was like a larger, more modern version of Nuremberg. Much of the city was actually destroyed in World War II, meaning that nearly all of the infrastructure is reconstructed. The most famous reconstruction is the famously beautiful Frauenkirche in the city center.
Dresden is home to the oldest Christmas market in Germany, so its no coincidence that my visit was in December. The market, called the "Striezelmarkt," was founded in 1434 and is located in front of the Frauenkirche in the city center. The vendors sell traditional, stereotypically German things like wooden decorations, hand-painted ornaments, lace cutouts. Of course, food carts were stocked full of bratwurst, Lebkuchen, candied nuts, Gluhwein, and bread.

A few other smaller markets were also popped up around the city. My favorite was the market in front of the Dresden castle, where vendors dressed up like they were from the 1400s and made their goods in front of the crowds. If you want to see more pictures of the markets, check out my Christmas market post by clicking here.

One day is definitely enough time to see all of Dresden's major sights. I recommend taking a day trip, if you like beautiful architecture and quaint European cities.

One of Dresden's Christmas markets
A sign inviting lovers to kiss under the mistletoe

Every Christmas market has a pyramid, and the one at Dresden's Striezelmarkt is the tallest in the world. Figurines twist and turn, rotating around the pyramid.

Dresden's city center

The beautiful Semperoper opera house

The Zwinger Palace

German Christmas Markets

Christmas time in Europe is really magical. All across the continent, Christmas markets pop up in big and small cities alike. Cheery vendors bundled in winter gear stand under tents selling food and gifts. Germany is especially known for their beautiful markets, which sell everything from candied nuts to traditional wooden toys. 

Smaller German cities like Dresden and Nuremberg usually host more traditional and popular markets, but Berlin still has its share of vendors and stands. Naturally I spent my last few weeks abroad visiting as many markets as possible and getting in the Christmas spirit! I also got a good chunk of my Christmas shopping done... who wouldn't love a handmade scarf or a chunk of German chocolate for the holidays?!  I've ended up stopping by about seven markets, and I found that each had its own charm and unique scenery. Although the markets are open practically all day, going at night gives a much better atmosphere, in my opinion. 
A specialty sold at every Christmas market is Gluhwein, a hot and spiced wine that comes in cute mugs that can be kept as souvenirs. Gluhwein tastes like a less bitter and warm version of normal wine. I've found a few recipes online that call for red wine, black tea, cherry schnapps, orange juice, cinnamon, and cloves heated together on the stove (Click on this Jagertee recipe, if you're interested in making the traditional German drink yourself.) I loved drinking a nice warm cup of Gluhwein in the chilly nights while gazing at the Christmas lights.

Other food specialties at German markets are bratwurst, Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies with love messages written on them with icing), Flammkuchen (thin bread topped with melted cheese, onion, and sometimes ham), crepes, and candied nuts. Typical items sold at the stands include nutcrackers, ornaments, wooden carvings, scarfs, purses, wallets, tea, jarred sauces, and candle holders. Perfect Christmas presents!

Christmas markets are better shown through pictures than described in words, so here are a few photos of my favorite stands and markets both in Berlin and in Dresden:

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Budapest: The Paris of the East

You know that scene in Eurotrip, when the group ends up in Eastern Europe and gets a five-course meal and luxury spa treatment for $1.83? I was constantly reminded of it last weekend in Budapest. My friends and I got hour-long Thai massages for $20, had a two-course meal for $8, and paid $10 each per night to rent out a two-story apartment in the heart of the city. After weeks of fast-paced and hectic European vacations, my mind (and my wallet) were ready for a low-key, relaxing three days in the capital of Hungary.

When planning my time abroad, I always imagined myself traveling to European hotspots like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid. Aside from London, none of these locations have been on my itinerary. I guess I started to see Europe differently after being here for an extended period of time. I learned that big cities like Madrid are expensive, Paris is supposedly underwhelming, and I'd rather spend a week traveling Italy in the future than try to cram Rome into one weekend. Of course I want to venture to all of the European hotspots in the future, but my time and budget just wouldn't allow it while studying abroad.  Instead of hitting these major travel spots then, I've been visiting smaller yet still popular European cities like Strasbourg and Copenhagen that I will probably never visit in my life outside of study abroad. And that's why my friends and I chose Budapest – after our program ends, when would we ever get the chance to go back?
Budapest has been a popular tourist destination for people in my study abroad program, which really took me by surprise because the city isn't the most well-known in America. Well, I'd like to officially declare this blog post a rave about Budapest. Not only was the city insanely cheap (gotta love that exchange rate!), it was also beautiful and charming enough to change my entire view of Eastern Europe. Before visiting Budapest, the picture in my head was of old buildings and dark streets, kind of like how Eastern Europe is portrayed in Eurotrip. Prague didn't fit the stereotype, but I viewed Prague as an exception to the stereotype. Well, if Prague is an exception, then so is Budapest.

The city center was actually pretty modern, with neon signs, Starbucks and Costa coffee shops, pretty old buildings, and street cars. Tourists were everywhere, but Budapest was spread out enough that the crowds were never overwhelming. A good chunk of the tourists were actually American students visiting Budapest while studying abroad like us. I felt safe the entire time, except for one night on the subway when a drunken old man wearing a top hat adorned with a British flag kept slamming a walking stick on the ground and yelling out gibberish.
Parts of Budapest outside of the city center were a whole different story. Walking down the street, I honestly felt like I'd taken a time machine back to Budapest after World War I. Buildings were crumbling and creepy. Bullet holes were etched into the bricks as a reminder of the violence of the world wars. Dogs ran loose, vacated fields lay overgrown. Now this was how I'd always imagined Eastern Europe, thanks to Hollywood portrayals. The older part of the city was still beautiful in an old-fashioned way, like modern ruins.
Now onto the details of my trip, if you're interested! I went to Budapest from Thursday to Sunday with six friends: three guys and two other girls. We rented out a well-kept, two-story apartment near the city center, and each of us only paid $10 per night! We had fun relaxing and playing games at night while exploring the city during the day.

Here are some pictures of our daytime adventures:

Fisherman's Bastion

A buda-ful (see what I did there?) view of Budapest from the Fisherman's Bastion

Overlooking the "Pest" side of Budapest

St. Stephen's Basilica — I've seen countless cathedrals in Europe, but this one is probably my favorite on the inside

The famously beautiful Hungarian Parliament Building

The Chain Bridge over the Danube River connecting the "Buda" and "Pest" sides of the city

Heroes' Square with a monument dedicated to influential Hungarians

Nights in Budapest might've been the highlight of the entire trip. On Friday, we were told we should go to a "ruin bar," or a cheap bar located in an old abandoned or neglected building. Very hipster, if you ask me.  We went to Szimpla based on a recommendation. The place was absolutely huge but so crowded that we had trouble finding a seat. I can definitely see the appeal, though. The atmosphere was comfy, and at less than $2 per half-liter glass of beer, the prices were unbeatable.

You can't visit Budapest without going to one of the world-famous thermal baths. Instead of going during the day, though, my friends and I went to a "Sparty Magic Bath" party at Lukacs Bath. The Sparty (spa party... get it?!) was basically a huge pool party with a DJ and drinks held in an outdoor thermal bath. My friends and I bought a few drinks, swam around, and met some other American kids studying abroad in Europe. I'd say a good half of the people in the bath were American. Four guys were at the bath for every one girl, which meant that my girl friends and I got a lot of unwanted attention. I was a little worried about people getting rowdy in the pool, but I actually had a lot of fun watching all of the drunk people! I don't even want to think about how gross and dirty that water must have been...  I don't know if I'd ever go back to a thermal back party, but I had a pretty memorable experience! If you're interested, check out the website here.

I can't write a blog post about another country without mentioning the food. Hungarian food involves a lot of meat in the form of stews and soups. I ordered beef stew one night and beef goulash soup the next, which are both traditional Hungarian meals. I was not disappointed! The dishes were less than $8 but tasted incredible. Hungarians also use a lot of spices and paprika in their dishes, and one restaurant gave us an amazing appetizer of different pepper sauces to spread on bread. Perhaps my favorite item, though, was a crispy piece of bread topped with melted goat cheese and garlic. The bread in Hungary is denser and more filling than any other bread I've eaten. Another interesting tidbit is that every restaurant had live music; my favorite was an old man in suit playing the xylophone. All in all, I wasn't disappointed with a  single Hungarian meal!

Some of my friends and I were determined to get a massage before we left Budapest, given the cheap prices. Budapest has massage shops on every street. We researched popular places and found a well-reviewed shop that offered hour-long Thai massages for 6000 Hungarian Forint, or about $25. You can't beat that deal! I've never gotten a professional massage before and I didn't know what to expect from the Thai massage. I have two words for tit: weird and relaxing! The four of us who got massages changed into clothes provided for us and lay next to each other on mats on the floor. The masseuses walked on our legs and backs while holding overhead ropes, and they used their whole body to give the massage. Although the massage focused on my back and neck, the lady also massaged my head, legs, hands, and arms. When we left the massage parlor, my friends and I walked sluggishly and slowly. We were all about to fall asleep on the spot!

Thank you for reading my blog post! I know this was a long one, but I love writing and tend to write for ages if nobody stops me. If you're looking for a city to visit in Eastern Europe, I would 100% recommend Budapest!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Way Up North in Scandinavia

When I came to Germany in August, I never thought I'd visit Scandinavia. Northern Europe was simply never on my radar. But sure enough, I booked a $45 flight to Copenhagen and flew to Denmark on Halloween weekend with my two best friends in my study abroad program! (And yes, this post is late. Term papers are piling up and reminding me that I actually have to do school work while abroad.)

I've heard of Copenhagen before studying abroad, but I honestly had no idea where it was. I guess Americans don't learn about Scandinavia much in history classes. A couple of people in my program visited Copenhagen and absolutely loved it, so my friends decided that we couldn't pass up a $45 plane ride to a new country. Spontaneous adventures are always the most memorable, right?

Our flight to Copenhagen was at 7 a.m., so my friends and I woke up at 3:30 a.m., got ready, and took the 4:30 subway to the airport, which is naturally located on the other side of Berlin. When our plane landed in Denmark at 8 a.m., I was pumped up on adrenaline and coffee, ready to explore! Despite getting four hours of sleep, we weren't willing to waste our precious time in Denmark.

Copenhagen isn't huge, but my friends and I planned ahead and researched some attractions we wanted to visit. Our proposed schedule was packed with pretty buildings and landmarks, but we dropped off our luggage in our three-bed hostel room and got breakfast before exploring. Right away we noticed that Copenhagen is crazy expensive! The exchange rate is intimidating enough (1 USD equals about 6 Danish Krone), and on top of that, we couldn't find a restaurant with breakfast cheaper than $15 in the city center. I was absolutely starving though, so I willingly paid $16 on a much-needed breakfast of yogurt with muesli, fruit, toast, cheese, ham, and coffee. Spoiler alert: every other meal in Copenhagen was just as expensive.

After breakfast, we basically power walked through Copenhagen to see as much on our agenda as possible. Here are some pictures:

Nyhavn, the old sailors' port

The picturesque entrance to Rosenborg Castle

We visited Copenhagen during fall, when the leaves were turning a beautiful red-orange. Of course, we took advantage of the park in front of the Rosenborg Castle for picture opportunities!

The famous little mermaid statue

Inside of the Round Tower, a 17th-century astronomical observatory with a winding ramp instead of stairs

Amalienborg, home of the Danish Royal Family 

The Church of Our Savior with its famous twisted spire

McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and 7-11. Was I in Copenhagen or Ohio?

A Danish hot dog with pickles, fried onions, ketchup, and Danish mustard. And yes, the hot dog is red!

We made a point to get danishes from a Danish bakery, which I swear was were best pastries I've ever had. I got a croissant-like pastry with jam and icing on top!

I had a typical Danish dish for dinner: pickled herring and salmon. I never had herring before, so I assumed the fish would be cooked and taste like plain white fish. I put the herring in my mouth and spit it right back out onto the napkin. The raw texture and extreme saltiness surprised me, and I was completely taken aback and disgusted! The next few bites were pretty tasty, though, because I knew what to expect.

Another amusing aspect about Copenhagen was the bike culture. More people rode bikes than cars in the city, and every building had a bike rack out front. Syracuse doesn't really have a bike culture due to the crummy weather, but my friend from California said she felt nostalgic for home with all of the bikes.

Being American, my friends and I were pretty nostalgic for Halloween, since we arrived in Copenhagen on October 31. Europeans haven't really jumped on the Halloween bandwagon yet. Fortunately, one of my friends decided to look up Halloween events in Copenhagen, just in case. We were surprised to learn that Tivoli Gardens, a big amusement park in the middle of the city, was hosting a fall festival! Of course we decided to go, despite the pricey admission. The park was decked out with pumpkins, orange lights, and festive decorations. Some people even dressed as zombies and walked around the park scaring people, although we aren't sure whether these people were park workers or random Danish men. Although the festival celebrated autumn more than Halloween, I'm glad I got a little taste of the holiday while abroad!

The next day, my friends and I finished everything on our Copenhagen "to-do" list, a day ahead of schedule. The city is amazing, but there isn't a ton to do while on a budget. We'd been joking all weekend about taking a $20 train ride to Sweden just because, and on Saturday we decided to go for it. Everything on our "to-do" list was checked off, and Malmö, Sweden was only a 20-minute train ride away. Malmö is, of course, not the same as Stockholm, but we were ready to explore a new country, no matter how small the city was. 

The first thing we noticed about Malmö was that tourism isn't huge there. The city had one tourism office that closed at 2 p.m., and our train didn't arrive until almost 2:30 p.m. To make matters worse, the fog and clouds were so thick that we literally couldn't see 50 feet ahead of us. Here is a picture of the Turning Torso, the tallest skyscraper in Sweden. The building is apparently really pretty and unique, but we couldn't even see a third of the way up!

We all agreed that gazing out on the Baltic Sea would be an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we trekked about a mile to the nearest coastline. One glance at the clear blue water made all of the our annoyances about the weather disappear. I didn't realize how much I missed the open water until I was gazing out at the vast expanse of sea. The scene was extremely picturesque; the Baltic Sea didn't have a beach per se, but we found a dock surrounded by large boulders and spent a good chunk of the afternoon taking pictures and relaxing.

By the time we left the Baltic Sea at 4 p.m., the sun had already set. I can't believe how little sunlight Northern Europe gets during the winter months! My friends and I tried to explore the city center, but we couldn't see much in the dim light and scoped out a Swedish restaurant instead. I wanted Swedish meatballs, but the restaurant didn't offer them so I settled for a delicious stuffed chicken. We ate outside, covered with comfortable blankets that the restaurant provided, before heading back to Copenhagen for some late-night souvenir shopping. 

Northern Europe was exactly how I imagined. The sun didn't shine one time in the three days we were there, and the air was frigidly chilly. The cold weather seemed welcoming, though. Both Copenhagen and Malmö  seemed to have a nautical/ocean theme, which makes sense because Scandinavia is located on the ocean.

My trip to Scandinavia was short and sweet, but I wouldn't change a thing about the weekend. Spontaneous European weekend trips with good friends can certainly create memories that last a lifetime.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This past Sunday, November 9, marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since I'm studying abroad in Berlin, I was lucky enough to attend the anniversary festivities!

The fall of the wall signified the end of the Cold War and the decline of communism in Europe. Germany was reunified into one democratic country for the first time since the end of World War II. November 9, the day of the actual "Mauerfall" (fall of the wall) in 1989, is kind of like  Berlin's version of Independence Day, since national pride is in full force. 

By the way, sorry about the blurry pictures. My camera doesn't work well in the dark!

Even that a 25-year anniversary is a huge milestone, Berlin hosted a ton of celebratory events in one giant festival during the weekend. Around 8,000 large white balloons were placed along the path of the Berlin wall, stretching for 15 km (more than 9 miles) through the city. This "border of lights" was the exact height of the former Berlin Wall, and each light glowed when the sun fell each night. Of course, Berlin's most popular monument wasn't left out of the festivities! The Brandenburg Gate transformed into a concert venue with a stage, flashing lights, and German pop artists. Information booths and TV screens relaying images of the Mauerfall popped up in select locations around Berlin as well.

My friends and I stopped by the festival on Saturday night for a couple of hours to see the balloons. We bought bratwurst and hot chocolate at the Winterfest in Potsdamer Platz before listening to some music at the Brandenburg Gate. The singer, who was apparently famous around the time the wall fell, was actually lifted above the crowds in a cage! 

Sunday was the actual anniversary of the Mauerfall, so at 7:20 p.m. the white balloons were scheduled to be released one-by-one into the sky, symbolizing the demolition of the wall. The festival on Sunday was literally the most busy, crowded, and overwhelming place I've ever been. I read that two million people were expected to visit Berlin for the event! I'd say a solid half of that number were gathered in the 750 meter (0.5 mile) stretch from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate. The crowds were so bad that we could barely move through them; we were stuck motionless in the middle of a hoard way more times than I'd like to think about. 

Halfway through our journey to the Brandenburg Gate, the crowd was stopped by the police. Apparently so many people were in front of the Gate that the police considered it a safety hazard and refused to let anyone else through. We were a little disappointed, since Angela Merkel (the German chancellor) and Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet Union's president during the Mauerfall) gave speeches at the Gate, and Peter Gabriel performed. Nonetheless, we were able to score a spot next to the balloons and got a front-row seat of their release. I found the event extremely powerful, and I felt so lucky to be a part of such a historic celebration. Perhaps more powerful than the balloon release was the older people crying, probably reliving memories of East Germany, and parents teaching their kids about their childhood connection to the wall. 

I can't believe Germany was divided only 25 years ago, and I can't even imagine living in a separated city. I'm glad that Germany is embracing its past and celebrating a defining moment in its history.