Eastern Excursion

I remember someone once telling me to save traveling Europe for when I’m old, to utilize my youthful energy in places a little wilder, a little realer, a little more worthy of open-minds and wide-eyed readiness for the world. And after five months of calling it home, I can understand why.

When traveling Europe, it’s easy to become entranced by the beauty of romance languages and Mediterranean beaches, to experience an entire continent solely through its fashion and cuisine and postcard-perfect scenery, a perpetual tourist eager to see everything and leave with nothing but souvenirs.

But Europe, and travel as a whole, is what you make of it. It can be idealistic and comfortable and surface-level, but it can also be moving, thought-provoking, and even a little uncomfortable at times, and knowing what I know now, I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I was young.

While my peers mostly favored Western Europe, with occasional excursions to Turkey or Morocco in true tests of their parents’ trust, I felt a pull toward Eastern Europe that I couldn’t quite explain, but knew I had to explore. Something about these countries seemed so foreign and yet so familiar, mythical and yet utterly real, rich and romantic and just a little bit sad.

19913483011_8da1fd85f0_kI suppose this is partly to do with the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by history. I spent most of my childhood reading memoirs and fictionalizations of Anne Frank and Anne Boleyn, finding myself more of a kindred spirit with the girls and women in these pages than with the people I encountered in my actual life.

Berlin had always been a place at the back of my mind, in my proverbial back pocket, somewhere both painfully real and mercifully mythical. I’d get there someday, and someday I did, on a 6:30 a.m. (though $30) flight out of rainy London, to the green and gold melancholy of Germany.

19913478091_fa0175dd16_k19720406570_87de24b54f_k 19720363730_740b089607_kWe found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, waiting on a platform with Cold War-era signage for the only train of the hour to take us into the city, past crumbling cottages and more graffiti than I’d seen anywhere in my life, scrawled across brick walls and abandoned train cars and tattered billboards. Berlin is not objectively beautiful, but I suppose its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always had a soft spot for urban decay, likely a contributing factor in my abnormally high tolerance for Los Angeles, and I think this is why I was always so certain I’d feel at peace in Eastern Europe. And even before we stepped off the train in Berlin, I knew I hadn’t been wrong about this assessment.

Standing where East and West Germany were once divided, following the Berlin Wall for miles, getting lost within a maze of monuments honoring the victims of the Holocaust, it all took my breath away. I won’t lie, Berlin was taxing; physically, mentally, emotionally. Our two-and-a-half hour walking tour of the city turned into an epic five hour excursion through countless neighborhoods and landmarks and I was ready to lay down and wave a white flag of defeat by the end of it. And by the fourth or fifth Holocaust memorial, my blood was boiling and my heart was heavy, and I couldn’t reconcile how so much hatred could still be alive and well in this world after we claimed to learn from these atrocities.

Mostly I felt immeasurably grateful at being able to see such powerful things in person, and reminded of just how much I can sometimes take for granted. When I thought of how I had learned all of this history in a classroom in a high school in a claustrophobic small town I sometimes thought I’d never have the chance to leave, touching the Berlin Wall took my breath away, and there was suddenly this cognitive dissonance; I am so far from where I started, literally and figuratively. I am both immeasurably privileged and inexplicably grateful.

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We took a train from Berlin, through the stunning small towns and green fields of southern Germany, to the second stop of our tour, Prague. It’s a stunning, fairy tale town, home to a glittering river and gilded bridges and an actual castle rising high above the cherry blossom city down below. There were horse-drawn carriages and sugary local delicacies and our hostel was housed in a 17th-century building located at the top of a windy cobblestone street.

Prague was home to some fascinating, and sobering, history, particularly in the Jewish Quarter, but it was personally the city to which I felt the least connected. It was gorgeous and quaint, but after little more than a day I was ready to move along. I’d heard incredible things about the city, and perhaps I was there for too short a time to have given it a fair assessment, but I didn’t feel quite myself there, and that’s just fine, sometimes.

19687828733_b6c50e5696_k20308838585_d3aa76fc14_k20314800531_f5c1abe24c_kFinally, we boarded an overnight bus to Budapest, a place of which for which I had precious few expectations, just openness, only a willingness to learn and experience and be. I remember first hearing of Budapest, this far-off, perhaps not-quite-real place years ago, and despite having not even the slightest inkling of where in the world it existed, I thought it sounded like the most exotic place I could have ever imagined.

For whatever reason, this seemed to be the year of Budapest. I never in a million years would have imagined it would be a place I’d reach during my semester abroad, but it was a surprisingly popular destination among my peers, due at least in some part I’m sure to the natural thermal baths I’d heard likened to giant, rowdy pool parties. The fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect of Budapest made the prospect of visiting even more thrilling, despite the fact that we had to endure a less-than-glamorous (though dirt cheap) seven hour bus ride to do so, arriving with a pink sky as a new day dawned.

Budapest is sparkling clean, almost a little too clean for my taste, and surprisingly new, at least in terms of architecture, thanks to a rather powerful flooding of the Danube in the 20th century. The first city I thought to liken it to was, oddly enough, Washington, D.C., though perhaps not so strange as I am quite fond of the Capitol. But Budapest is home to many museums, monuments, grassy areas, decent public transportation, plentiful street food, and an oddly muggy, stormy mix of spring weather that reminded me of summers in the south.

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Having suffered tremendous losses and setbacks during World War II, the Holocaust, Communism, the Cold War, and more, Budapest is a city heavy with history. There are monuments and museums around every corner, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of free walking tours in order to get acclimated to the city. Our homey hostel was also a tremendous resource, with friendly staff who thoroughly annotated our maps and gave us local insight into the best restaurants, bars and attractions.

In terms of historical must-sees, I never could have anticipated that a favorite stop of mine in any city would be a place called the House of Terror, but Eastern Europe is not for the faint of heart, and this museum is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in history or, frankly, the human race. I can think of few experiences that affected me as deeply as this one, tracing the footsteps of Nazi leaders and Soviet dictators, I found myself amazed at how the 20th century had absolutely devastated Budapest, from World War II to Communism, and yet it has flourished in the decades since. It was truly an immersive experience, the closest I’ve ever seen a museum get to a theme park exhibit, and yet it treated its subjects with utter respect and seriousness, and despite the special effects and ominous music, the crowded, darkened elevator that deposits visitors down in a dungeon where unthinkable things occurred, the constant reminder that all of this really and truly happened, that human beings committed these acts, that all of these people once lived and breathed the same as me, made this more chilling than any house of horrors I’d ever visited.

Frequent stops for rose-shaped gelato and Hungarian trinkets were necessary to counteract the heaviness of the city’s history, but so is the case with many places. I’d highly, highly recommend Budapest’s outdoor markets over the indoor ones (havens for scammers and pick-pocketers, speaking from my own personal experience and those of others.) Not to mention that, on a beautiful day, the outdoor markets are absolutely blissful, emanating pure Old World-Europe, with vendors selling hand made soaps, traditional marionettes, local paprika, and other Hungarian wares. The food is much cleaner, fresher and tastier at these markets, too. Other absolute must-visits are St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the 400-step trek to the top is definitely worth the city view,) the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Citadel, and the Budapest’s many ruins pubs, which are fairly self-explanatory and yet really must be seen to be believed. Trust me, they’re a truly Hungarian experience.

After seven days of soaking up history like sponges, of scrounging for vegetarian food, of exploring three richly fabled cities on foot until we could barely walk anymore, it was time to head back to our little makeshift home in the UK. We bought our tickets and boarded a public bus out of Budapest, with a blood orange sunset following us west, past the Danube and the dilapidated city outskirts that seemed to sigh, streaking through the dusty windows and seeping into my soul just a little.

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We were one of the handful of flights out of Budapest that night, we practically had the airport to ourselves. I sampled a local favorite cuisine, Burger King, for dinner, and we queued up out on the tarmac to wait for our plane in the dark, arriving back in London to April rain and an immigration line that made us miss our train. We arrived home in the early hours of the morning, exhausted, feet aching, wanting to crawl into bed and keep the world at bay for a few days. But every line, every penny spent, every minute spent waiting, every mishap and headache and disagreement, it was all worth it, I knew that much within an instant of being back.

20282186736_dcaec78540_zI didn’t feel quite myself anywhere in Eastern Europe, but I did feel at peace. And I felt in many ways as though I was more than myself. This was not my culture, this was not my history, not my burden to bear or my stories to tell. And so I was there to listen, to be an open book and a blank slate, ready to become a student of events I didn’t witness, of a world I never thought I’d get to see.

I’ve always been comfortable with sadness, perhaps a bit too much so, and in turn, people who are uncomfortable with it make me just a little uncomfortable. It’s important to learn about history so as not to repeat it, and to be reminded of what we have so as not to take it for granted. I could have gorged on history my entire time in Eastern Europe, but I don’t think my psyche could have withstood it. I’d recommend this trip in a heartbeat, and yet I don’t think I could bring myself to do it again. I could write about my experiences in this strange, utterly unforgettable region forever, and yet I think I’ll end things here, with an encouragement to go to Eastern Europe but also somewhere, anywhere, that scares you a little, makes you uncomfortable a little, that makes you feel so much smaller than history and so much more than yourself.

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European Whirlwind

With the travel period of my study abroad semester in full swing, this past month has been a whirlwind of airports and landmarks and exploring iconic, awe-inspiring places I thought I’d only ever dream of seeing. And with summer fast approaching, and travel and exams leaving me little time to write and sort through (far too many) photos, I thought I’d take write-up a quick recap of some of my recent travels to four European cities, and offer up my thoughts on what I loved, what I didn’t, and what I’d do differently if I were to ever revisit or recommend these cities to anyone else.

Amsterdam

I think the general theme of my travels around Europe thus far has been me being a bit let down by places I expected to love, and absolutely enamored with places I didn’t expect anything from at all. Amsterdam is an example of the latter, and though prior to visiting I’d essentially only heard the tales of Amsterdam that everyone hears of Amsterdam before they visit, I can confirm that this city is so much more than its world-famous vices.

First of all, yes: weed is legal. Prostitution, too. But outside of the Red Light District, by the light of day, you’d might never even know Amsterdam has this slightly seedy underbelly. In fact, it’s a city with almost no crime, and with plenty of parks and playgrounds and green spaces, its general atmosphere is surprisingly family-friendly.

I felt even more connected with nature in Amsterdam than I did in Stockholm, and the maze of canals that wind through the city truly are breathtaking. No matter how many times I’d walk or bike over a bridge, no matter how similar the view was to the last photo I’d taken, I couldn’t help but stopping to take a picture. The architecture is absolutely stunning, too, with the city known for colorful row homes lining the canals, as well as gorgeous old churches with steeples spiraling skyward, and an open-air cafe or bar just around every corner.

My travel companions and I were especially lucky with to catch such incredible early-April weather, in the high 60s and sunny throughout our trip, and seeing the city by bike was absolute bliss on a breezy spring day. With such narrow, maze-like streets, it isn’t a wonder that most people in Amsterdam get around by bike, and it’s a cheap and fun way to see the city, although I will say that the Dutch take their biking very seriously, and if your reflexes aren’t quite fast enough you will hear about it.

Amsterdam is definitely more of an activity-based city than some of the other places I visited; we saw the Anne Frank House, the Tulip Museum, the Cheese Museum (unlimited samples of the absolute tastiest, and freshest, cheese you will ever taste, need I say more?) the “I am Amsterdam” sign, plus the city offers countless canal tours and plenty more museums. Given that it’s spring, we also took a day trip to Keukenhof, Holland, where there are more tulips in more colors than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s absolutely gorgeous, although for the steep admission price I would liked to have seen a few more actual tulip fields, but the ticket did include round trip transportation from the city, and really, how can you pass on seeing spring in Holland if given the chance?

Even with a million amazing things to do in Amsterdam, some of my favorite moments there involved doing nothing at all; just sipping a Heineken along the canals, snacking on piping hot French fries (trust me, Dutch fries are a must) and wandering around the city, or sampling Dutch cheese and wine falling asleep in the sunshine at Keukenhof.

My takeaway: Amsterdam manages to be sensory overload by night, and yet an incredibly relaxing place (not just because of its tourist industries) by day, and the city can offer a number of different atmospheres and itineraries depending on the traveler and the budget; whether you’re a college student crashing in hostels, a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or even on a Dutch family holiday, there’s plenty to see and do for people from all walks of life. I would go back to Amsterdam in a heartbeat; for the food, the people, the scenery, and the overall relaxed vibe, and it’s honestly somewhere I think everyone should try to see at least once in their life.

Dublin
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The simplest way I can sum up my expectations for visiting Dublin is to say that I’m Irish, and I’ve heard about Ireland my whole life. My hopes, and those of my family, for visiting my ancestral homeland were based less in reality and more in folklore and shamrock-and-leprechaun-filled travel shows. All my lofty hopes for Ireland were essentially asking to be dashed, and though I ultimately enjoyed my time there and have every intention of returning to the country to explore more someday, I can safely say that St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was not quite the vision of Ireland I had always had in my head.

Though this will come as no surprise to most, Dublin is not a land of shamrocks and rolling emerald hills; it’s a working class city, rather rough around the edges, and not really a place I would choose to revisit for more than a few days a time. The Guinness Storehouse tour, while, well, touristy, turned out to be quite a memorable experience and actually a bit of a bargain (on the day we went, we were offered two free tastings with a light snack and a free pint of Guinness up in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour.) St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephen’s Square and Trinity College were all beautiful must-sees well worth a walk through, but I have to say my favorite parts of Ireland were well beyond the reaches of Dublin.
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Given the length of my stay in Ireland, and the size of the country, it only made sense to make a day trip tour to the Cliffs of Moher, a truly breathtaking natural wonder that wound us through Galway and the emerald, sheep-dotted hills of Western Ireland. We stopped for a hearty lunch at a roadside Irish pub and then it was off to spend a couple of hours climbing around the cliffs and marveling at the sparkling turquoise sea. In an age of Instagram and the internet in general, it can feel impossible to be truly awed or surprised by anything these days, but the cliffs certainly did the trick. I could have easily stayed there for hours more, perched thousands of feet above the ocean, the sea breeze in my hair, the Atlantic stretching on for miles and miles in one direction, and the Irish countryside rolling forever toward the horizon in the other.

A third and final outing took us to the seaside village of Howth, which is sleepy and quaint and a foodie paradise only about 45 minutes outside of Dublin by train. We stumbled upon a charming cafe just outside the train station and stopped for tea and scones, then wandered around the seaside and the pier to take in a view of the “Eye of Ireland” isle before treating ourselves to a fresh-off-the-line lunch of authentic fish and chips.

My takeaway: St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was a bucket list item for sure, in more ways than one; it’s certainly a story I’ll always have to tell, but it’s also something I know I’ll only need to do once. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and really the entire day (or week, really) of festivities were quite possibly the least Irish thing I’ve ever experienced, but my five days in Ireland were a memorable experience nonetheless. I wouldn’t rush to recommend St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin to anyone over the age of 30, or anyone who doesn’t enjoy (or can’t at least tolerate) large crowds, drinking and general debauchery.

All in all, I didn’t particularly feel a personal connection to Dublin, especially given that all the St. Patrick’s Day festivities were less Irish than anything I’d encountered even in the United States. Speaking completely subjectively, Dublin isn’t a particularly scenic or exciting city, but I loved the other parts of Ireland I was able to see, and I have every intention of returning to my ancestral homeland someday, hopefully this time with my family in tow.

Paris

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I wasn’t ever the little girl who had a room adorned with the Eiffel Tower prints and t-shirts scrawled with French phrases. I never considered myself to have any particular affinity for Paris; it always seemed to be a bit stuffy and pretentious for my taste, not to mention the fact that I’m not a huge fan of French food, and above all, I had heard one horror story after another about the supposed rudeness of Parisians.

But between living in London for six months, and having a close friend studying in Paris, I knew I couldn’t leave Europe without paying a visit to the City of Lights, and I truly couldn’t be happier that I did. I was fortunate enough to spend four whirlwind, rain-soaked days in Paris, and each one was memorable. Though I was able to cover a lot of ground in that time, I feel as though I still could have stayed longer, and I never thought I’d leave wanting to come back, but Paris certainly has a pull.

There are things that everyone must do when visiting Paris, and for good reason. Sample street crepes, pay a visit to the Louvre, get up close and personal with Picassos and Van Goghs at Musee D’Orsay, feel the love at Pont de l’Archeveche (the bridge of locks,) stroll up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and make a trek to the Eiffel Tour after dark, where twinkling lights make the landmark sparkle every night, on the hour.
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Paris is a city with a reputation that any place would find hard to live up to, but it’s a place that doesn’t disappoint. There’s a little something for everyone; the romantic, the history buff, the foodie, the fashion-lover. Despite three straight days of rain, despite waiting two hours in said rain to see the famed Parisian Catacombs (an incredibly and surprisingly un-touristy experience) and another two hours to see the Palace of Versailles on Easter Sunday, despite overcrowded Metros that stop running at midnight, Paris endeared itself to me in a way I never expected.

My takeaway: Paris is a must for a reason. If you’re into high fashion and high-brow art, there’s plenty of it there. But the City of Lights has a lot more to offer, from the Catacombs to the Jewish Quarter and lush green parks, from board game bars to killer crepes and the most efficient Metro system I’ve encountered in Europe thus far (at least before midnight.)

I also couldn’t have been happier to find that, despite my elementary knowledge of French, Parisians were overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, or at the very least, effortlessly cool and easy-going. It’s a world-class city, a place oozing with history and plenty of mystery, and one of the absolute last places I ever expected to leave a little piece of my heart behind. But I guess that’s all the more reason to plan a return trip sometime soon.

Stockholm

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Thanks to a number of travel mishaps, the most stressful, high-adrenaline parts of my Stockholm trip occurred just in trying to get to Sweden, but once there, things slowed down considerably. Stockholm is not a cosmopolitan or high-energy city, and it’s hard to believe it’s home to more than 1 million people, as it often felt like my traveling companion and I were the only people wandering about the city streets. Sweden is a place known for a slower, stop-and-smell-the-roses pace of life, and though I know that Stockholm won’t be every traveler’s cup of tea, it was certainly a welcome change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of London.

April is essentially the start of Stockholm’s renowned summer tourism season, and as such it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of things to do. The Swedish capital is known for its long (almost endless) summer days, and its archipelago, a collection of thousands of islands that stretch all the way east to Finland. Unfortunatelym during our visit, ferries to Vaxholm, the so-called capital of the archipelago, ran only once a day, and in the early morning, so we were left with the option of a two-and-a-half hour archipelago cruise that didn’t actually let us disembark anywhere, but was beautiful nonetheless. It was quite pricey though, as are most things in Stockholm, and as such may not be an option for the budget-conscious traveler.
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Due to heavy taxes, which provide the quality of life for which the Swedes are known, the cost of living in Stockholm is quite high. Our hostel wasn’t exactly a bargain, and we didn’t eat a single meal for less than $20, even when we bought the food to go. On the other hand, I can say that we didn’t have a single sub-par meal, the city wasn’t overrun with tourists, even on the weekend, and the weather was absolutely beautiful. Furthermore, English is as commonly spoken as Swedish, and the locals are incredibly friendly (and especially considerate of pedestrians.)

Stockholm is a charming mix of old and new, known for its colorful, cobblestoned Old Town and rustic boats docked in the archipelago, as well as its edgy street fashion and modern shopping malls and hotels. There aren’t necessarily tourist attractions in Stockholm, per se, but rather little vignettes around the city that are well-worth seeing; Old Town (Gamla Stan,) the shores of the archipelago, and shopping areas like Sodermalm. There are some palaces and monuments, but they didn’t seem to be much of a draw once we were actually there. And if you want to traverse a more cliched route of Stockholm, the ABBA Museum and ice bars await.

My takeaway: Sweden is a land known for its distinctly Scandinavian winters and summers, so it makes sense that during the in-between seasons there is a bit of a lull. Stockholm is beautiful, friendly, clean and generally very easy-going, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-see destination unless you’re interested in experiencing a snowy Swedish winter or endlessly sunny Scandinavian summer, if you’ve got the time, money, and yearning for a few days of fresh air and sunshine, you really can’t go wrong with Stockholm.

Overall, each of the four cities I paid a visit to in April had a distinctive vibe, each with its own story to tell, and each left a different mark upon me. Inevitably, I found myself loving cities I didn’t anticipate loving, and not quite gelling with some of the cities I had been most looking forward to visiting. And this is the double-edged sword of traveling, as I’ve come to realize. With each new place, you risk losing everything you once believe to be true about it. And yet, with every destination, you also stand to gain another city, another culture, another people, and another place in this world to which you just might completely connect and wholly belong.

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5.