Sunday, May 6, 2012

Berlin-so alt

Our travel day from Amsterdam to Berlin started off a little shaky.  We took the train to the airport and somehow, only Olivia and I managed to get off before the train doors closed.  Luckily, Emily and Jessie made it on the plane despite their minor detour into rural Amsterdam.  We went through the obnoxious Easy Jet mob boarding style, took my seat, and woke up in Berlin.

Berlin is simply a cool place to be.  Often referred to as "alt" (alternative) and the punk capital of the world, it is a grungy but beautiful modern city that has clearly been influenced by its rough history.  But before I continue, let me take a moment to talk about this so-called hostel we were staying in.  I call Plus Berlin a "so-called" hostel because the "s" has no place in that word.  It was a hotel at a hostel price.  Huge lobby, huge room, super helpful receptionists, a restaurant with a delicious breakfast (that had more than toast!) our own bathroom, a game room, a yard...  Unreal.  Toto, I don't think we're in hostel Kansas anymore.  This was the Oz hostel.  So stay there when you go to Berlin. 

Ok enough of that.  After putting down our bags and forcing ourselves to leave our beautiful room, we ate lunch at a burger stand.  Now, I'm not a huge red meat fan, but this burger (bunless for me, with bun for the normal people) was absolutely delicious.  Then we walked along the East Side Gallery which is a part of the wall that is covered in art work.  Just when I thought I found my favorite one, there was another mural to wow me even more.  It was a great expression of post Cold War peace and love.  Then, we headed to the much more modern and much more commercial KaDiWee (sp?), a huge Harrods-esque department store in town.  Not quite as impressive as Harrods, but a good place to feel fancy and wander.  After dinner in our neighborhood, we decided to spend the night in with Harry Potter 6.  You can't ever go wrong with HP. 

The next day was full of touristy Berlin.  Tour of the Reichstag (parliament building), a very tasteful and powerful Holocaust memorial and museum, Brandenburg Gate, consumption of currywurst, and the New Synagogue.  I particularly enjoyed learning about the Jewish community (did I surprise you?).  Berlin had several synagogues, a Jewish school, a Jewish old age home, and a very strong Reform Jewish community.  Learning about the rich past was inspiring and I believe that a strong Jewish community could return to what is now a very accepting and open city.  It was a long day, but we felt very accomplished at the end.
As if our day wasn't full enough, we followed it up with an alternative pub crawl, which took us to 5 different pubs of different varieties-punk, pool table, absinth...  We met a lot of fun people from all over the world and were guided by a German young woman who seemed to fit right in to every place we went.  It was definitely a fun night, and definitely something I glad I was being guided to.

The next day, we continued our super alt Berlin lifestyle and took a free alternative tour, which I highly recommentd.  Our tour guide took a trip to Berlin a couple of years ago and just decided to stay.  Can you imagine being that spontaneous and carefree?  She has dabbled in the art scene and is now in two band-one which she described as pop and one as punk and screaming.  The tour, which was the four of us plus one other couple, felt like we were just following her around a normal day.  We saw a ton of graffittie and learned to recognize some of the prominent artists.  We stopped at an African beach bar and ate delicious African food (don't ask me what it is).  We learned about a yearly food fight that takes place between two rival neighborhoods.  Something particularly interesting to me was the strong Anti-Fascist movement in Germany.  I didn't realize that spirit was still alive today.  Apparently, on May 1, aka May Day, there are huge parties/riots.  The neo-Nazis who come out to protest have to be protected by the police from the tons of Anti-Fa people who would allegedly attack them and overwhelmingly outnumber them.  We ended the tour at a department store turned artist squatter site where artists have studios and rehearsal spaces and sell some of their work.  Unfortunately, the bank that now owns it is trying to kick them out, but some artists have remained.  (cue the Rent song lyrics)  I felt like I got to see a totally modern and real part of the city and so appreciated it.  I could see myself living there in a lot of ways.  Probably wouldn't be part of the artist squatter community, but still, it just seems like a great place to live with culture on every corner.  After our grungy tour, we went back into history mode at Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror museum.  The museum provided a pretty thorough history of the build up and events of World War II in Germany.  Lots of words, but lots of good information.  It's free to the public and another example of Germany's clear attempt to recognize their country's past actions and do something about it.  It was a very well put together exhibit and worth the reading.  Finally, we headed back to our hostel and ate some sushi.  Olivia and Emily headed out while Jessie and I encored our glorious movie night (because we're really cool).

Our last morning in Berlin was coincidentally fantastic.  After a couple more travel mishaps, Jessie and I planned to go to a brunch restaurant we found online.  While walking through our neighborhood, which we both agreed reminded us of Brooklyn, we happened upon a farmers/flea market.  Joy doesn't even begin to describe it.  We sampled passion fruit marshmallows, admired crafty jewelery, gazed at endless strawberries, and somehow managed to eat a delicious meal.  It was the perfect ending to our trip and another reason why I could see myself spending more time in Berlin.  Apparently on Sundays there's a flea market that includes karaoke.  Huge bummer I missed that.  I guess I'll have to go back...

Now I know this post is long, but I just have to reflect on one more thing.  As much as I could see myself loving Berlin long term, the overwhelming WWII presence would also make it hard.  My grandfather was German and I really wish I could talk to him today and share my experience with him, as well as hear the story of his life in Germany and then escape from Germany in person.  Modern Germany seemed nothing like the past, but the knowledge of it still lingers.  And as the Holocaust survivors are passing away, so is the German WWII generation.  So when is a city so-called "redeemed?"  Can Jews truly thrive in Germany and Eastern Europe again?  Ready, discuss.

Between the history, the fun, the alternative fun, and the reflection time, my trip to Berlin has made it to my favorites list.   

Steep staircases, coffee shops, and a sea of orange

Finally!  My finals were complete, I said "hasta pronto" to Carlos III, packed up my life in Spain, hugged my senora goodbye, and embarked on what we have been calling Maycation. 

First stop-Amsterdam.

After yet another way too early plane flight, Emily, Olivia, Jessie, and I  landed in Amsterdam and found the apartment that we had rented right in the middle of the city.  This place was so cool.  The apartment belongs to a 20 something guy from Atlanta who lives in the building and rents the other place out.  After a slightly treacherous stair case, we found ourselves in a fully stocked place with a couch, beds, a tv, a playstation (ok, I don't know how to play but the idea was cool), left over snacks from the last visitors, and everything else that we could possibly need for our Amsterdam vaction.  A few blocks away, there was a carnival set up in honor of Queen's Day.  A few blocks the other way was the Red Light District.  Every store was selling orange, the color of Queen's Day.  We seemed to have arrived just in time to enjoy the festivities.  We wandered into the Palace, which was pretty different from the Spanish and French ones, but not overwhelmingly awesome.  Right outside of the palace doors was the carnival with some very tempting looking cotton candy.  But, before we started celebrating the former queen's birthay (not sure why, just go with it), we made a more solemn stop at Anne Frank's house where she and her family hid during the Holocaust.  If you've ever been to a Holocaust museum with me or tried to assign me a Holocaust book to read or kept me home from school on Yom Ha'Shoah, you know that I'm not the best at handling the horror of Europe's past.  The Anne Frank house, however, was very well done with a balance of history, her own quotes, and videos of her childhood classmates.  I found out that she always planned on writing a book about her time in hiding after the war, and I think it is incredible that her dream came to fruition, although tragic that she didn't get to see it.  Her father, the family's only survivor, found her diary and published it soon after.  It might be time for me to start reading.
After the museum, we meandered back to our apartment to prepare for erev Queen's Day.  Another group of friends from Berkeley/Madrid joined us and the 8 of us took to the streets.  We went on a very high up, very frightening, and VERY fun carnival ride, danced in a bar/club situation, and roamed the crowded city center.  It was merely a preview of the day ahead.  On Monday, the festivities were in full swing.  People dancing in the streets, vendors everywhere, and an overwhelming amount of orange.  Elle Woods would've been horrified, considering orange is not the new pink.  The day was intercepted by a nap, followed by dinner and some more wandering and fun.  Overall, Queen's Day was quite a success.

Then, we entered a more normal day in Amsterdam.  After much needed sleeping in, we made our way over to the famous Van Gogh museum.  Surprisingly, the streets were fairly clean considering the trashed nature of the previous day.  Something to be said for socialism...?  (Get me back to American democracy Europe is brainwashing me)  Anyway, the museum.  It's amazing how much art one man produced.  It's also super unfortunate that Van Gogh had such a depressing life.  Hopefully he knows how celebrated he is these days.  The museum was a very manageable size and was definitely worth a visit.  After fully taking in the post-impressionist glory, Jessie and I trecked across the street to a cocktail museum about this really old liquor company based in Amsterdam.  Pretty random but super fun.  And yes, you get to sample some very colorful and very pretty drinks.  Finally, we participated in the obligatory "take pictures with the huge Amsterdam sign."  Touristy and necessary.  That night we ate some delicious thai food, hung out a graffitti covered cafe, and chilled.  Another early trip awaited us the next morning.  I was sad to leave the fun and adorable city that is Amsterdam, but excited to continue on my 5 country adventure.  Sometimes I can't believe this is real life.   

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The visitors

First of all---I'm done with finals!  I'm done with Carlos III!  It's that great feeling of relief after you've been studying so hard (with a mixture of facebooking) and for so long (the night before the exams).  And now it's finally over.  The only problem?  It's raining.  I thought the rule of pathetic fallacy was that my mood is reflected in the weather.  My mood is bright and sunny.  It's grey and gloomy.  Come on Madrid, you really decided to end your drought the last few weeks I'm in Madrid?

Anyway, the past two weekends has been a return to touristy Madrid, but this time I got to be the tour guide.  First up, Aki!  She posted on my facebook that she wanted to come visit and I was like, cool, but that's really all of a sudden.  But she actually came!  And it was fantastic!  We walked around the city based out of her apartment, which was literally in Sol, the city center.  We spent a fairly ridiculous time at El Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor market with different stations with different food, from pimientos de padrón to sushi to French macaroons.  Aki's dreamland, to say the least.  We were there eating dinner on the night that Passover ended, but interestingly enough, it wasn't really special.  Yes, Aki too is gluten free so we continued to scrape cheese off of pieces of bread and avoid anything fried in batter.  So much for a chametz feast.  We also participated in a jóvenes judíos en Madrid event-a night out at a bar to celebrate the end of Pesach.  We observed the crowd of 18-young 30s, chatted, and enjoyed the ridiculously fancy cocktails.  After we were worn out by exploring the city, we relaxed and watched Being Elmo.  Sweetest movie ever.  Overall, a super unexpected and incredibly fun visit!  And I kinda managed to show her around...except when I got lost.  Don't accuse me of not getting to know Madrid.  I can't get myself around LA either.

Then, Tuesday rolled around and the much anticipated visit of my parents finally arrived!  Unfortunately I had this annoying thing known as "class" getting in the way.  It was okay though.  We met up for dinner on Tuesday night and ate a touristy-we have an English menu restaurant in Plaza Mayor.  When I asked the waiter if they have anything with meat or shellfish, he legitimately started laughing.  We managed to find something.  The next day, my parents ventured off to Toledo while I sat in class.  That night I actually had a goodbye dinner organized by my program, eap, at a restaurant overlooking the Real Madrid stadium.  It was really nice, and I discovered that I was heavily featured in the eap promotional video.  What?  Rebecca volunteered to be in a video?  She likes to talk on camera? You're shocked, I know.
On Thursday, mis padres y yo took a tour of El Palacio Real and walked around the Botanical Gardens next to the Prado.  That night, we went to Botín, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world despite the fact that it is not located in Sub-Saharan Africa, with my friend Jessie and her parents.  It was so nice to finally meet everyone!  It was an East Coast-West Coast Jewish dinner party.
The next day, my parents came to my temporary home and took the grand tour (that takes about 30 seconds) and met my host mom.  The conversation was slightly comical.  My parents made a valiant effort to communicate in the Spanish that every Southern Californian native inherently knows.  My host mom just doesn't know any English.  Both glanced over at me with a "huh?" look every couple of exchanges.  All in all, I think the notion of "thank you for taking care of our daughter" and "it's been so nice having your daughter here" got across.  Next up, a walk through el Parque Retiro.  That place is so big. Getting into it is easy, but getting out...  Hey, if you wander long enough, you'll find your way.  My tried-and-trusted strategy.  We had lunch at my favorite vegetarian restaurant with a menu full of options for everyone!  That night, I took my parents to Shabbat services and dinner at the Comunidad Judía aka Jabad aka Chabad.  Guess what?  No interrogation!  I was recognized by the guy who asks the security questions!  Success!  At dinner, we sat across from a French family with 3 boys.  We were constantly cracking up at the fact that the 11 year old could simply be a tzofim camper at Alonim.  Seriously nothing different about him.  Some things are just the same in every country.
On Saturday, my parents went to the Prado while I wrote an essay (2 pages).  Then, we lunched at everyone's new favorite restaurant.  I actually stumbled upon it with Aki the weekend before, and decided to take my parents back.  Major success.  We did some souvenir shopping (aka presents for grandchildren) and then went to a Chagall exhibit that's temporarily in Madrid.  Finally, the answer to celebrated art that doesn't involve crucifixions.  It did involve a fiddler on the roof.  Score.  That night, we went to a "dinner and flamenco show" event.  Do you remember how much I loved flamenco the first time I saw it?  It's possible I loved it even more this time.  We were seated next to another table of Californians with totally different lives.  They're dairy farmers and live near Fresno.  We all enjoyed the food and show immensely.
Finally, on Sunday, we left Madrid and visited El Escorial, a monastery (still in use) and palace (once upon a time).  Still don't understand how they built these monstrosities.  This one was made of granite and aimed to show the reformation folk that the Catholic church was still all-powerful.  Every once in a while, we could hear the soprano voices of the nuns singing mass.  There was a beautiful library with the liberal arts represented in a fresco on the ceiling.  Clearly my favorite part.  Back in Madrid, we found a tapas restaurant in Plaza de Santa Ana, the place to be for tapas, and enjoyed the atmosphere filled with some tourists and lots of Madrileños.  It was a perfect conclusion to a perfect weekend with my parents.  Did I mention that I also got to be a "fancy" tourist and take cabs home from their hotel?  Things you all the sudden let yourself do when your parents are around.  You also try to stop making decisions.  It's fantastic.

And now, I've arrived at my last weekend of Madrid.  More traveling coming up and then home.  But I can't reflect on that now--it seems to weird.

Catch up on Jewish life in Madrid!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

El Reino Unido

I find that I often don't think about the literal meaning of an expression or title in English until I hear it translated into another language.  Take the "United Kingdom" for example.  The United Kingdom is the name of England and Scotland that we often shorten to the UK.  In Spanish, it is appropriately called El Reino Unido, which literally means the kingdom united...the United Kingdom.  Of course, in English the name indicates that it is a kingdom united but sometimes you just don't think about all that until you hear it in another language since it's just what something is called.  Now, you either think this is very interesting and are going to come up with other examples or you think I'm dumb because this is so obvious.  Sooo now on to what actually happened while I was in this place with kings who once came together to be united.

We took a tiny, 19 row plane with propellers on the wings that any uneasy flyer would be especially uncomfortable with from Dublin to Edinburgh.  In the airport, we briefly lamented that we now have to get pounds.  Going from 1.3 euro to the dollar to 1.5 pound to the dollar.  Proud to be an American...  We also were very confused by the sight of the streets.  The cars...they were...they were driving on the wrong side of the road...I don't get it...I...which way do you look to cross the street???  Luckily, we made it. We got to or hostel before check-in and were invited to hang out in the lounge where they serve breakfast until noon.  Clearly they know how to please their crowd.  An instant sense of comfort and familiarity came over me in that hostel.  Why?  Because it looked exactly like a Berkeley coop.  Paintings on the walls by various artists, vegetarian dread-locked hostess, people sipping tea and lounging on the collection of furniture in the common area.  Despite my exhausted, slightly irritated from early travel self, the coop environment that reminded me of so many (best) friends back at Cal put me at ease.  Once we got into our room, we settled in and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the quaint little city.  We had heard that the Edinburgh Castle is the thing to see, and, considering that almost every building in the city looks like a castle, we were pretty sure we had located it about five times.  With a little map investigation, we managed to correctly locate the one that actually housed kings and such.  We climbed up the road to the royal residence to take the tour.  Crown Jewels, jail cells for prisoners of war, a Great Hall, royal bed chambers, and of course great views of the city were some highlights.  A cool place to see, but not my favorite castle.  It's ridiculous that I have a favorite castle.  Who am I?  This is unreal.  Later on, I made the terrible glutenous mistake of eating Chinese food, which pretty much kept me in bed the rest of the night.  Live and learn and don't mix something you're allergic to with MSG.  

The next day, we attempted to go to the National Library, but found it closed for the Easter holiday.  Rude. Caitlin, the brave one among us, went on a tour of underground Edinburgh full of ghost stories and legends while the three of us walked around another part of the city.  Quaint castle style buildings really is the best way to describe Edinburgh.  There were some cute shops and cafes, and we even found gluten free pizza for lunch!  Take that, chinese food.  We then rushed back to our hostel to grab our stuff and head to the train station.  Arrived about 2 minutes late.  Oops.  Luckily there's always another train.  

We pulled into King's Cross Station and, despite it being dark and us being sleepy, we were immediately amused by the fact that yes, you can visit platform 9 3/4 and pretend just for a second that you're headed to Hogwarts.  HP nerd sigh.  After the obligatory picture, we tackled the tube and found our next hostel.  Caitlin and I introduced Michelle and Nick to Indian food.  Helping people from cultural food deprivation all day every day.  Then we slept to prepare for the London adventures ahead.

Well, if the first thing you do in London relates to Harry Potter, the second should probably have something to do with the Beatles. Caitlin and I went on a Beatles themed walking tour where we got to see the band members' residences, some restaurants that they frequented, and of course, the famous Abbey Road.  Just a tip, don't drive on Abby Road if you're in a hurry.  Tourists will be there taking pictures.  Londoners must know that, but they still were quite displeased with the delays.  But we got our picture soooo it's all good.  We met up with Nick and Michelle at Harrods.  Harrods is not just a department store.  Harrods is magical.  It's overwhelmingly huge and sparkly.  It has everything you could ever want (but not for Costco price).  The people who work there are all charming and good looking.  The best part?  CHOCOLATE.  They have these chocolate counters that supply the best chocolate in the world.  Now, I understand I haven't tried all chocolate, but I will hold onto my belief that this is the best until I am proved wrong.  If you're cute and complimentary, you get some free samples.  You also just spend the money to buy more in the end.  It's that good.  Oh right, then we got real lunch-fish and chips for the others, grilled tuna salad for me.  We made a quick stop in Piccadilly Circus to buy some theatre tickets!!  West End!!  We chose Billy Elliot, even though the first snooty ticket seller insisted that all the tickets would be sold out.  We found some.  I also found self-serve frozen yogurt.  Apparently, it's the only place in London (maybe in Europe) that has self-serve because I was the only customer who knew what was going on.  The girl working there seemed to appreciate that I didn't ask 100 questions, and I shared the joys of living among endless yogurt shops at home.   Next up, Buckingham Palace proceeded by a walk in a beautiful park filled with flowers, trees, the craziest variety of birds, and a memorial pathway for Princess Diana.  The Palace was very cool but closed, so we couldn't go in or even annoy the guards.  Shame.  But nothing could really bring me down because we were going to a musical, and really, life can't get better than that.  I really enjoyed the show.  The dancing was great the the 13 year old Billy was just incredible.  It was cool to see a show that was actually set in England, although the cockney accents were a bit hard to follow.  The music didn't blow me away, but the production was overall very good.  They don't give playbills in London theaters so I had to buy the fancy program for my collection...  After the show, we walked around trying to find a night spot and realized that London's bars close before midnight which only leaves clubs, which are open until around 3.  Pass.  The differences in night life in various cities really is very interesting.  I think Madrid is the capital.

We started off the next day at Brick Lane Market, a huge outdoor market with ethnic food and vintage clothes and chockeys you'll never use.  It was touristy and local at the same time.  We indulged in the delicious street food, got some deals on dresses, and took in the culture around us.  London is certainly more diverse than other European cities I've seen so far.  After the market, we hit some more big sites.  From Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to the London Eye.  We spend a lot of time walking around this famous part of the city, snapping photos and posing in front of red telephone booths.  We bought tickets to the London Eye but decided to wait til dark so we could see a view of the lit up city.  We ate some sushi and then walked to Shakespeare's Globe.  So many theatre dreams coming true in one place.  The Globe is located on a the river and the walk back was simply charming.  Once we got back to the Eye, it was the perfect time of night.  We spent the 30 minute once around ferris wheel ride enjoying views, especially of the lit up Big Ben.  I definitely think there's something special about cities at night.  After that, we headed to a swanky bar to meet some swanky British people.  It was fun, but of course all of the people weren't British.  Gotta love those huge cities.  

On our last day in London, I didn't have much time since I had to catch my flight back to Madrid.  Since we had seen most of the big sites and didn't have time for any more like the London Tower, we went back to Harrods to buy some chocolaty souvenirs, indulge our Harry Potter nerdiness one more time by checking out the toy section, filled with every character's wand (for only 27 pounds...) and a Marauder's Map.  Then it was back to the hostel, into a cab (it was still driving on the wrong side.  Really don't know how it managed that), and to the airport.  I was sad to leave my Barcelona to Dublin to Edinburgh to London spring break behind, but excited to be back in the comforts of "home" without having to come up with a plan every day.  

Now I'm in Madrid with one more week of classes and one week of finals to go.  I don't know where the time has gone.  If anyone has seen it, please contact me asap.

Until next time.
Hasta luego.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ireland: it really is that green

You know those places that are sorta on your secondary list of places to go?  Like, you think, that would be cool but not my priority right now.  Well, that was how I felt about Dublin/Ireland.  Sounded cool but it could probably wait.  But, when my friend Caitlin (from New Jew days) told me that she and her friends from her program in Italy to Dublin, Edinburgh, and London, I decided to join, partly because I knew I had to get to London somehow, and a lot because a week with Caitlin would be hard to pass up.  So, I did some research and was getting pretty excited about the land of the Leprechauns, but was still focusing my attention on the London portion.

You know what?  I was wrong about Ireland.  It did not belong on my secondary list.  It belonged in the top 5 of my primary list. 

Close your eyes.  Picture those travel lists you have in your head.  Move Ireland up in the list of priorities.  Open your eyes.  Keep reading.

We arrived in Dublin in the afternoon without much of a set plan.  After dropping off our stuff at our hostel, the nice girl from the Midwest with an "I have lived hear one year" Irish accent directed us toward a Mexican restaurant.  Our hostels fabulous location let us walk to the center of the city.  After a while looking for the restaurant in the rain, we almost gave up.  Luckily, we used our English, which we've all been studying for a while now, to ask some nice Irish people who kindly directed us to the right location.  Luckily the corn tortilla tacos were delicious.  By the time we were done, around American dinner time, we decided to head back, make some plans for the next two days, and venture reallyyy far to the pub next door.  Sometimes working hard for something brings the best rewards, but sometimes just checking out something right in front of you makes for the best nights.  We sat down at the bar and quickly befriended the bartenders, whose accents were almost too thick to have a comfortable conversation and who turned out to actually be brothers, although we doubted them for a while.  A rowdy group of cast and crew members from Dublin's Avenue Q sat behind us (thanks theatre spirits) and the pub started filling up with Trinity College students; not surprising since the college was right across the street.  We met a really great group of engineering students.  My new friend  Dave (yes, everyone's name actually was Dave, John, or Mark O'something) was very impressed that I go to Berkeley.  Just because I don't actually participate in our top notch engineering program doesn't mean I can't brag about it, right?  Dave plans to move to New York after he graduates, so basically we're going to magically meet up again and become best friends one day.  You just wait, doubters.  Anyway, the bartenders started kicking people out to close up right around when a Madrid bar would start filling up, but kept assuring us that we could stick around.  So basically, being friendly and American gets you the change to hang out with the bartenders (also students at Trinity, btw) after everyone else is gone.  We felt really cool.  Probably because we are...

The next day, we joined an organized for hostels free walking tour around the city.  It was cool to see some sites like the Four Courts and the Dublin Castle and the Cathedral and hear some history, but the tour guide wasn't thrilling (get what you pay for I suppose), so we decided to leave the tour early and grab lunch.  Of course, the "traditional" (read: touristy) restaurant we went into happened to be the place where our tour stopped a few minutes later for a bathroom break.  Awkward, "oh we're hungry and cold so we're going to stick around here."  After lunch, we walked around the Temple Bar area and then hopped on a bus to the Guinness Factory/museum.  Yes, the Irish love their beer so much that they devote a museum to it.  It was actually pretty cool.  It teaches in a quite flashy manner how Guinness is brewed, what ingredients are used, etc.  There are also some fabulously cheesy videos about the history and the factory.  At the end, you get a free pint served at the top of the pint-glass shaped tower where I happily sipped on my sprite looking at the views of the city.  Then, you get lured into the gift shop.  Pretty typically brilliant if you ask me.  That night, we chowed down on pad thai and then headed to what we thought was another cool pub that everyone had told us to go to the night before.  Turns out that the huge language barrier led to a misunderstanding.  It was a club, not a pub.  Our low-key underdressed group didn't last long.  The whole scene was pretty comical actually.  I don't know if it's the stereotype of Irish people singing and drinking beer in jolly little pubs, but nobody at that club looked like they belonged there.  To make the night even more entertaining, it hailed on the way home. Yes, hail.  On our Spring break.  Just for the 10 minutes it took to get back.  All we could do was laugh.

The next morning called for an early wake up call so we could take a three hour bus ride to the West Coast of Ireland.  Now, for when you go to Ireland (because we've already established that you're going), don't be deterred by the 7:10 AM bus departure time because you must go on this tour.  We chose the brochure that advertised a tour of a family farm as well as the famous Cliffs of Moher.  Once we arrived in the city of Galway, the small group from our tour was transferred to another bus where we were greeted by our tour guide/bus driver and his adorable 8ish year old son.  Once at their family farm, we were handed off to the 30ish year old nephew for our tour.  We walked through the greenest grass I have ever seen encountering some cows and sheep along the way.  We walked up a hill that sported some fertile rock at the top.  As we climbed, the view kept getting better and better.  We chatted with some women from San Diego, one who is getting her doctorate in psych after already getting her MSW.  Clearly, we bonded.  At the top of the mini hike, our guide explained the legend of the fairy tree.  Tying something to the tree symbolizes leaving your troubles their for the fairies to take care of.  I think the green hills turned me into an Irish folktale believer.  On the way back down, Caitlin was given the responsibility of closing the farm gate once everyone was through.  I doubted her farm skills, but she closed that gate valiantly.  As if the whole thing wasn't picturesque enough, the next part of the tour took place at Granny's Cottage where you drink the most delicious coffee and have a choice of homemade pastries.  They also bring out a puppy for you to play with while our bus guide and his son play a traditional Irish game outside on the lawn.  You doubt that this is real life, and they assure you it is.  Then you go into the porta-potty style bathrooms and they're, gasp, nice.  With real soap and wood floors.  You question everything you know about life.

Our next stop was the "most popular tourist attraction in Ireland," the Cliffs of Moher.  Now, I know we all like to think of ourselves as a little hipster and avoid the really touristy stuff but, to put it lightly, get over yourself and go to the Cliffs of Moher.  I know I talk about how gorgeous views of cities from the tops of towers are all the time, but this is really something else.  There are two cliffs to climb--one very safe with protective walls and one with warning signs about danger that hundreds of people seem to ignore--and both have incredible view of water crashing onto the rocks, endless shades of blues and greens of the water, and the rock formation that are the cliffs themselves.  There's a visitor center, but despite the strong freezing wind, we chose to spend the whole time outside enjoying the phenomenon that is nature.  Fun fact about the cliffs: they are featured in the 6th Harry Potter movie.  Here's a clip:
So, if I hadn't convinced you yet, cue Harry Potter fans flocking to the cliffs.
After more scenic driving, we warmed ourselves up with some coffee back in Galway and then boarded the bus back to Dublin, still amazed by everything we had seen that day.  Our tired crew ate dinner and collapsed into bed for and even earlier wake up to catch our flight to Edinburgh.  Honestly, we were sad to leave Ireland but excited for the rest of our trip still ahead.

With a similar sentiment, perhaps you're sad this post is over, but anticipating the rest.

P.S. I love you

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Barca Barca!

Just when you start to get a little full of your American self thinking that these European countries are pretty small and can´t even compete with the amound of diverse culture we have among the go from Madrid to Barcelona and you discover you´re wrong.  And a little stuck up.  (And should probably stop expecting the whole world to speak English, but that´s another story).

Barcelona and Madrid are the two most well-known cities in Spain, but Barcelona is definitely the tourist trap winner, and it´s obvious why.
Barca is a city
Barca is a beach
Barca is a city
Barca is a beach...
No no no.  You´re both right.  Barca is 2, 2, 2, destinations in 1!  (cheers from the symphony audience).

A city on a beach.  Can the world get more perfect?  Yes.  Because on my trip, there was perfect sundress and flip flop wearing weather.  Nice work, world, nice work.  I went with two friends from my program and three from another (all Cal kids except one).  It was a lovely group of 6 lovely girls in a lovely place.

Barcelona also has the most interesting and beautiful architecture by Gaudi.  The first Gaudi extravaganza we witnessed was the Sagrada Familia.  This is a Cathedral and although it does have the aforementioned Jesus style like the other cathedrals, it is also a totally different experience.  The walls almost look like foam, a bit reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss hoo-ville set you see on the Universal Studios tram.  The stained glass windows are full of interesing shapes and vibrant colors.  You could probably stare at them forever.  There are random figures of fruit and reptiles all over the ceilings outside.  Everything is alternative and captivating.  There was a wedding party downstairs and, I have to admit, if it wasn´t still clearly a cathedral, I wouldn´t object to getting married in the Segrada Familia.  At this point, we also renamed our travel crew the segrada familia (which means sacred family) because we´re really adorable. 

Another Gaudi work we got to see was Parque Guell.  It´s a breathtaking site that is not to be missed in Barca.  The combination of the nature and the architecture and the tiles was simply perfect.  We walked around the park and had a picnic snack on the tile benches.  We also each bought earrings inspired by the tile patterns for a special deal of 2 euro each!  One of the most famous parts of the park is the tiled lizzard which I must say was pretty cool but certainly not the only thing to see.  Add a gorgeous view of the city and you´ve got one great place to be. 

And then there was the beach, of course.  We were very lucky to have such beautiful beach weather.  The water was definitely too cold for a swim, but the sunshine was perfect for laying in the sand.  We spent a fair amount of time at the beach relaxing and rejecting the various salespeople trying to sell massages (ok not everyone rejected that), drinks, sunglasses, and scarves.  A lot of the nightlife also takes place on the beach, and we actually went to a club right on the sand.  Kinda crazy but kinda cool. 

Oh, did I mention that our hostel was fantastic?  Everyone was super friendly and they organized fun events each night.  There was also a kitchen and we (and by we I mostly mean Emily) cooked a delicious taco salad.  It was delicious and a nice change to actually know exactly what we were eating.  The language in Barcelona is also very interesting.  It´s very clear that Catalan is a mixture of Spanish and French.  Por ejemplo, the word for exit in Catalan is ¨sortida.¨ Spanish salida+French sortie=Catalan sortida.  Everyone spoke Spanish though.  As a matter of fact, pretty much everyone spoke English.  Another sign that Barcelona is the tourist place to be.

Clearly, I fell in love with Barcelona.  But don´t worry, Madrid is still deep in my heart.  As much as I love the beach, the real city is where I belong.  Honestly though, if you have 3 days in Spain and have to choose one place to go, I may have to betray Madrid for a sec and recommend Barca.  Just make sure not to mention Christiano Rinaldo...

Spanish besos+French baisers=Catalan petons (ok that didn´t work so well...)

English kisses! :)

Friday, March 30, 2012

"Si...I mean oui...I mean...whatever"


It's one of those places that you dream about going since you see a picture of the Eiffel Tower, hear that it's the most romantic city in the world, or, for some of us really special ones, watch Mary-Kate and Ashley's Passport to Paris for the first time.

When you get there, it can be magical.  But's a real place.

Now I hate to buy into stereotypes, but the whole thing about Parisian people not being the nicest, especially to American tourists, is kinda true.  Our trip got off to a bit of a rocky start.  The first mishaps was nobody's fault but my own-I arrived at the airport only to realize I forgot my passport.  Two hasty cab rides and one new cab driver friend/hero later, I made my flight.  First hurdle conquered.  Then we got there.  I was traveling with my friends Emily and Olivia who you are likely well acquainted with by now if you've been stalking my pictures.  Emily had a skype interview set up that night which we thought she would be able to do at the hotel.  Apparently, transport from the airport took a little longer than we thought so we hopped off the metro and ran to the first place we could find with WiFi.  Low and behold, a McDonalds.  We're so French.  After fighting with WiFi and some diet cokes, we got back on the metro.  Sounds simple right?  HUGE mistake.  We used the tickets which we had bought at the airport which let all three of us through the machine.  A French security guard then proceeded to stop us to check our tickets and surprise surprise, they were the wrong ones.  It's strange that they let us through, but the whole her barely speaking English and us not speaking any French and her yelling at us at French and seemingly growing angrier when we tried Spanish and us desperately trying to explain that no, we did not break into the metro with all of our luggage while a metro employee was sitting there watching and her calling the police.....eventually led to us paying a 40 euro fine.  For doing nothing wrong.  Welcome to Paris.

But seriously, after that night, the whole trip turned around.  We headed out in perfect weather to our first big tourist destination--the Louvre.  It was huge and grand and surprisingly not overcrowded.  We of course saw the Mona Lisa and a variety of other paintings that I recognized from my intro to art history class from freshman year (listen to your mom when she tells you to take those things.  I did).  We also had Olivia as our very own art history master to inform us on some backstory.  Besides the classic Renaissance art, we also checked out the Ancient Egyptian art and got to see the first written law in history.  Super cool.  After the Louvre, we walked across the romantic lock bridge and down the river to Notre Dame.  No hunchback, but beautiful stained glass windows.  There was a choir singing and people taking communion (I think) which made picture taking a little awkward.  I can't imagine someone photographing me praying in my synagogue.  But then again, my synagogue looks nothing like Notre Dame.  We then proceeded to head back to the hotel to "get cute" and scurried off to the Eiffel Tower.  Now, I know we all like to think we're not cliche, but the Eiffel Tower lit up at night was truly like a dream.  We climbed to the top and overlooked the gorgeous city.  We then bought some grapes and wine and cheese and picnicked in perfect view of the tower. All the frustration of the night before melted away as Paris won our hearts.  3 more suckers pulled into the magic.

The next day, our first stop was, wait for it, a gluten free bakery.  Basically I have awesome friends who are willing to take time out of their trip so I can eat gluten free French eclairs and cream puffs.  It was such a delicious, friendly, happy place.  Totally didn't miss out on any French cuisine!  Then, we headed to Musee D'Orsay, an impressionism museum which I absolutely loved.  I've actually been an impressionism fan since Kindergarten thanks to a fabulous art teacher at STS.  We saw Monet and Degas and Manet and Van Gogh a Gauguin.  I know the Louvre is a thing, but I preferred this.  Next up, some walking through the city in the fashion district, along Champ Eleseey to the Arc de Triumphe.  The heart of Parisian shopping before our eyes.  The Arc de Triumphe and pretty much anything relating to any sort of French Revolution that I saw promptly began a chorus of "Do You Hear the People Sing" in my head.

That night, we dined outside at a French cafe.  I almost don't want to admit this, but I feel the world must know that I tried escargot...and it was kinda good.  But then I think about it and I'm slightly appalled at myself.  The restaurant was fun and was followed up by a swanky bar where we met some cool French guys who were actually really great to talk to.  And spoke English.  So basically major winners.  Yay for international friends!

On Sunday, we took a small day trip to Versailles.  This place is something to see.  Gold everywhere, breathtaking rooms, the infamous hall of mirrors, and a garden full of daffodils that may be one of my favorite places in the world.  The long lines and train ride out there were totally worth it.  The town was really cute too.  Kinda felt like a mini Paris right outside the city.  When we got back to Paris, we made a quick stop at San Chapel, a church with wall to wall stained glass windows, before Olivia flew back to Madrid.  That night, Emily and I went to a fabulous 300-person restaurant called Chartier with no English menu and a super friendly waiter who explained everything to us.  It was reasonably priced and beyond delicious.  I loved that there were a lot of actual French people in there as opposed to just tourists.  I highly recommend it for when you go to Paris.  It was a perfect ending to what turned out to be a fantastic trip.

And now, I'm sitting in a hostel in Barcelona at the beginning of my Spring Break aka Semana Santa. Not feeling 100%, so I've decided to take it easy tonight.  I have a long and exciting week ahead of me.  Then it's just 2 more weeks of class, my parents visit, 1 week of finals, and May travels.  I can't believe how fast it has gone and yet, I know I'm going to be ready to come home to my friends and family.  Amargo-dulce~bittersweet.

I suppose for now, we'll always have Paris.