Wednesday, December 21, 2011

i'll be home for christmas.

Currently,  I'm laying in my big bed back in Naperville. This post was written on the plane. Enjoy.

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Halfway across the Atlantic, I'm nearly home after four months on the Emerald Isle. It's impossible to describe a study abroad experience without using clichés. My adventures will be ones I will never forget. I will always be grateful of the time I spent abroad and all the people I met. Near the end of the whole experience, I was getting rather culturally sick. I missed the things I took for granted in the United States, such as businesses being open past 6pm, cheap Mexican food, and the validity of a driver's license. I was telling Mark during the last few days that if I could take all of my friends from Ireland, Chicago, and Los Angeles and move them to one place (which would be Chicago, but transplanted to where LA is), I totally fucking would. While this wasn't the first time I've had to say goodbye to people I may never see again, it was definitely the hardest. Over the past four months, I gained friends that I was comfortable enough to be my nerdy self. They introduced me to things I would never have done before Ireland.

So, thank you. Thank you everyone involved with my study abroad experience in Cork. And I mean everyone. From my parents, for funding the whole trip; to Lynda, my best American friend; to Mark, my kindred spirit; to my crazy fucking roommates; to Haley, one of my few Stateside friends to regularly talk to me. And to you, reading my blog. If it weren't for all of you (yes, I'm talking about you), I don't think I could have done it.

If this sounds cheesy, it should. Thank you cards are always the cheesiest cards on the rack because even Hallmark hasn't figured out a way to make appreciation and thanks sound genuine. (And they've figured out how to say everything.) I wish I knew a way for all of you to feel how much I really appreciate the support while I've been in Ireland. To know that I wasn't forgotten on another continent is a great feeling. To be welcomed into a fairly established group of friends is overwhelmingly fantastic. To be able to break down and share the most intimate thoughts is so dear.

I know I didn't talk much about my feelings while I'd been away. If I had a problem or frustration, I couldn't find a way to work it into the blog. Either that, or I would sound like a 14 year old emo kid with a Xanga writing terrible poetry. I saved many of those thoughts for a different blog where I would complain about the weather in Ireland, how I stopped finding things to eat, or being constantly referred to as 'the American'. (Those who know how much I detest pride in America understand where I'm coming from.) My homesickness came late in the game compared to many of my fellow American cohorts. It didn't rear its ugly head until around November when I ached for certain pleasures (i.e. food) I couldn't find in Ireland.

I started hating Ireland during November. I couldn't wait to go home to my mom and dad, where I knew what I liked to eat, and could go wherever I wanted to go. Every time I left on a trip outside of Ireland, I never wanted to go back. I wanted to stay in Edinburgh/Berlin/Munich/Budapest/Prague/Krakow. I had had enough of Ireland and Cork. The more research I did into the politics of Ireland, the angrier I got. My entire final paper for my undergrad career was basically a rant on how archaic and unfair most of Ireland's laws are regarding families. I couldn't stand it. The more I looked into the place I was living, the more I hated it. Before the Extraordinary Eastern European Extravaganza, I loathed Ireland. I hated UCC and college in Ireland. I never wanted to go back. I've been paying attention to American politics and societal shit and I don't want to go back either. Yet, I know how to deal with it there. I know that despite my country going to shit, I can live around the laws and the policies in place. Ireland, I don't understand you. Mark explained it to me best: he doesn't find Ireland as crazy as the States because that's what he's used to. The U.S. is what I'm used to. Some cultural norms were driving me insane and I needed release.

Now that I'm leaving, of course I know I'm going to miss Ireland. Maybe not the crazy ideals or the chokehold Catholicism still has on the country, but I'm going to miss my friends and the craic. I may or may not miss Cork. Jury's still out on that one. I'll miss the ability to up and travel somewhere new in a different country. I won't miss the lacadaisicality of the education system, but I will miss the interesting classes I took while there (with the exception of Family Policy). I will hardcore miss WARPS and all the people there. You all are amazing and should know that about yourselves. I have never met a group of people who are so passionate about the nerdiest things and I love it. My only hope is that I can find a group like y'all when I move out to LA. I need RPG and nerds in my life at all times.

I know I thanked you, the reader, for reading this blog. It's tacky to thank the reader, but seriously, thank you. As a self-absorbed writer, I like knowing that people are reading what I'm writing and (hopefully) enjoying it. I write them as a reflective method for myself, but also as a way to share my experiences in a timely manner. Nothing's worse than asking someone "So what did you do overseas?" Unless you had six hours, three bags of kettle corn, and a 12-pack of good beer, I couldn't do it. It's hard to think back to everything you've done in four months. Bet you can't do it either. Blogs are so helpful with thought-keeping. I'm pleased to be returning to my LA blog when I get back there. I may even start another of just my random thoughts. (Have I ever told you my Brownie Theory?)

Goodbye, Ireland. It's been real good craic like. I'll be back to visit. Maybe not for a while (because I'll be poor) but I will be back.

Hello, Chicago. Sweet home Chicago. I'll be home for Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

in which gabby drunkenly mistakes dollars for euros.

The title is a true story, but we'll get to that.

Thursday morning was spent missing the 6am train from Krakow's city center and getting on the 6:30am after a bit of slight hysterics. We made it to the airport with almost too much time to spare. So, naturally, we sat around, found stale food, and waited for our flight to be called. We were on a pond-jumper airplane and were thrilled with the hour of free reading. Lufthansa is also the best airline. Free drinks, free luggage check-in, and awesome German efficiency. Best.

After landing in Munich, we made our way to the S-Bahn and took that 45 minutes into the city -- more reading. We walked to our hostel, dumped off our bags, and headed into town. (Fun fact: our hostel is quite close to the hotel I stayed at the first time I was in Munich!)

Munich was all decked out for Christmas with all the stores hanging garland and tinsel in their windows. Our first stop was Karlsplatz -- but there was an ice skating rink in the way! It was the start of the Christmas Market that started at Karlsplatz and ended at Marienplatz. And what do you do at the start of a long day of shopping? Eat. We stopped at the big cabin-looking building in the middle of Karlsplatz to grab a bite to eat and watch some of the ice skaters. Little did we know, we were being eavesdropped on. We had two reporters from a newspaper wanting to interview us Americans as to why we chose to come to Munich's Christmas Market. How cool! So, after a brief interview, they wanted to get a picture of us on the ice rink. We pushed around one of the penguin skating guiders, in our gym shoes, while the photographer got pictures. It was quite a start to Munich.

Once that finished, we started our way down the Christmas Market. Most of the stalls were selling similar things to what we found in Budapest, Prague, and Krakow. At least, when it came to ornaments. I was looking for one for my mom and it was proving to be difficult. The ones I did find were either 1. breakable, or 2. extremely breakable. It wouldn't be until late at night that I'd find one. (In other words, Happy Belated Birthday, Mom!)

Regardless, we sought out Frauenkirche, a cathedral near Marienplatz. It was on Gabby's list of things to see. Absolutely gorgeous, as always.

We spent the majority of the day shopping and looking around Munich. By this point in the traveling, we were pretty tired so we took a break and went back to our hostel. Gabby read and I finished my last essay of my undergraduate career. Unbelievable.

Since the weather was supposed to be worst on Friday, it seemed like the perfect day to spend indoors. Our first stop was at The Residenz, the home of the King of Bavaria. It's a huge house with tons of ornate rooms. Some of the rooms were destroyed in World War II bombing of Munich, but they've been restored to the point where if I didn't know any better, I would think it was original. We took the long tour and saw the whole Residenz and the Treasury (royal keepsakes, jewels, and porcelain). Later, we would return to see the Theater which definitely did not disappoint.

Between The Residenz and the Carilles-Theater,  we went all the way over to the Deutsches Museum. The brochures had boasted that the museum was all about technology with many hands-on exhibist -- which we later discovered were all mostly out of order. It wasn't the most exciting part of the day since we were tired and many of the exhibits were in German. Unlike the exhibits in Hungary, I could read the exhibits. Yet, as those who have intermediate skills in another language, it's really exhausting. I resorted to my typical museum behaviour: push all of the buttons. And as I said before, most of them didn't work. Sad day.

We cut our visit to the museum short when both our feet were crying for release. We found an Italian restaurant since I was craving a pizza. It's hard to find a traditional German restaurant that has vegetarian options, let me tell you. Poor Gabby didn't get much traditional German food since the Germans love their meat (especially the pig).

Once again, we went back the hostel to read. We were both reading 'A Game of Thrones' and were both anxiously wanting to know what was going to happen. Our bodies also wanted breaks. It seemed like an obvious choice.

Hunger drove us out of the hostel to find food, specifically Dampfnudel mit Vanillesosse und Zimt (Giant Fucking Dumpling with Vanilla Sauce and Cinnamon). We saw some ladies getting them the day before and had this need to try it. It was thick and I was having trouble digesting it. Gabby ate it right up.

Our last stop in Germany was the famous Hofbrauhaus. It's a huge traditional Bavarian beer house that caters to tourists. The staff is dressed in near-traditional German wear (no lederhosen, but definitely dirndls) and they have a live German polka band playing. We found seats with this Greek woman who was by herself. She didn't speak much German or English, but she was very kind to let us sit with her. When she left, she was replaced by a German family who Gabby and I later befriended and were invited to stay with them if we ever return to Germany. Yay friends!

But the best part of the night was just coming. Hofbrauhaus serves its half-liter beers in giant mugs. They're heavy and do not make drinking beer a simple task. Through our exhaustion, I somehow wordlessly convinced Gabby to a drinking contest in which we both chugged down our beers. Now, I'm not a light-weight, but Gabby is. She had also been searching for a sweatshirt for the better part of the trip. She decided that a Hofbrauhaus sweatshirt was a great idea. It's a cool place, so why not? After we bid ado to our German family friends, we went to the shop. When Gabby went to purchase her sweatshirt, she handed the cashier US dollars without realizing it -- until the cashier says, 'Um, these aren't Euros.' I nearly pissed myself laughing while Gabby struggled to put her dollars away and get out her Euros. The entire walk back to the hostel consisted of me laughing at Gabby and her trying to walk in a straight line. Good times. (She will deny all of this happened in this fashion, but this is fact because I wrote it first.)

Went into a coma after returning to the hostel to wake up and get back to Ireland. We made it to the S-Bahn and sat with two Americans, one who was working in Germany and the other was visiting her. The ride was going swimmingly until everyone heading to the airport was instructed to leave the train at a stop that was definitely not the airport. So, there were are, about 100 people going to the airport, standing at this random train station in the snow for 20 minutes before the next train showed up. We ended up befriending a random Welsh man who shared with the four of us some of his horrific travel experiences. Gotta love horrific travel experiences.

Eventually, we got to the airport and boarded our flight in which I was naturally seated in front of a 18 mo. old who would not stop kicking my chair. I pushed the images of me squishing the child's head like a grapefruit and concentrated on finishing Game of Thrones.

Our flight landed and we made it to the train and back to Cork. It was a long journey, but I'm glad we did it. I got to go to three cities I've never been to as well as revisit a beloved city of mine. I'm also really glad Gabby came with me. Originally, I was thinking of doing the trip by myself. Now, after the trip, I don't think I would have made it. It would have been lonely and stressful to be by myself for a little over a week in four different countries. Besides, now I've got some great Gabby stories.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a fog always sits on auschwitz-birkenau.

Literally 24 hours in Krakow, Poland. We didn't come here for shits and giggles. We came here with a purpose: to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

Last night was the first time I ever slept in a sleeper car on a train. How cool is that? I had the room to myself and went to bed early, listening to Mumford & Sons before sleeping. It was pretty relaxing and I slept pretty well minus being incredibly hot.

We got into Krakow, Poland at 7:30am and went to our hostel. We weren't able to check-in or anything, so we left our luggage, found food, and did some minor sightseeing around the city prior to our tour pick-up. Krakow is a beautiful city in the morning. It's a shame we don't get to see more of it.

Our driver picked us up at 9:15am to drive us out to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It's about 45 minutes away from Krakow and the drive was through Polish countryside. It was a beautiful drive, but there was a slight chill about where we were going. We were dropped off at Auschwitz I, the smaller of the two camps, and awaited our guided tour to begin. I had never been on a tour in which we wear headphones to listen to our guide, but it made the experience much easier to gain information and take pictures.

We began by walking through the infamous gate of Auschwitz: 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Makes Free). At Sachsenhausen and Dachau, their entrance gates contained this similar phrase. However, Auschwitz's was much larger and much more eerie. It gave me the odd feeling I was entering some twisted amusement park that was going to steal my soul -- and in a way, it did for the prisoners.

Our tour visited some of the small museums and exhibits on the Auschwitz grounds, some of them creepier and sadder than others. As a Concentration Camp Enthusiast (as horrible as that sounds), I had seen a good portion of the exhibits at either other concentration camps or the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C..Yet, it never stops to be striking and poignant. For example, one exhibit at Auschwitz contained a good portion of suitcases people had brought with them. Prisoners were convinced by Nazis that they were being taken to a better place, to Canada (why Canada, I'll never know). They packed all of their personal belongings and took them on the trains. When they arrived, these things were taken from them and put in storage, known as 'The So-Called Canada'. Their suitcases were kept as well and are currently on display at Auschwitz. The worst rooms were the rooms with the shoes -- as they filled nearly and entire room -- and the room with the hair. Prisoners had their heads shaved and the Nazis kept the hair to be made into cheap fabric.

While much of Auschwitz I was similar to much of the Holocaust stuff I had seen previously, one of the biggest differences was the way the Nazis tortured the prisoners. They were kept in pitch black rooms until they suffocated. Four people were held in a 3x3ft cell where they could only stand. (And we noticed that they had to crawl to get in.) People were eventually taken out to the yard and shot, two by two. Auschwitz was known for how much it tortured its prisoners, but the worst was not over

The second half of our tour led us to Auschwitz II, or Birkenau. This is the most famous concentration camp. You've seen the entrance in pictures. It's bleak, desolate, and utterly terrifying. A fog lingers over the camp. It's chilling to be there, knowing this was the worst of the worst. Thousands of people were kept at Birkenau. Thousands of people died at Birkenau. Now, all that's left is ruins. What used to be bunks are now a forest of chimneys. The four crematoriums were demolished and a monument was placed between Crematoriums II and III, warning the human race of the atrocities that happened there and to not let it happen again.

As our tour guide was finishing up our tour, the sun came out from behind the clouds. It was disgustingly poetic.

I will always have a fascination with Concentration Camps, and I'm glad we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Going to a Concentration Camp site is a humbling experience and lets you reflect on the freedoms and the joy we're allowed to have now. For some of our ancestors weren't so lucky.

After returning to Krakow, Gabby and I took a short nap, then went out to the Christmas Market. It was quite quaint. We had delicious pierogis for dinner and I'm vowing to learn to make them. Of course there was shopping involved. I was shopping specifically for my Aunt Theresa. She's 100% Polish, and last April, her family's house caught fire and they lost nearly everything either to flames or dousing water. I figured she'd love some Polish things to help redecorate her house.

Gabby and I went to bed early to make sure we caught our 8:45am flight to Munich. It was a long, emotionally tiring day, but definitely worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

czech in, czech out: prague.

Prague, Prague, Prague. What to say about you, you beautiful city? Well, I could start off by saying that you're beautiful because that's a fact. If you have ever thought about going to Prague, go. If you've never thought about going to Prague, go. Seriously a beautiful city. We did Prague in about 24 hours and wished we could have stayed longer. We've graciously started calling this trip our 'Taste of Eastern Europe'.

We got in last night after a 7 hour train ride through Budapest, Slovakia, and Czech Republic, to finally stop in Prague. We hurried ourselves out of the train station to our hostel and were shocked to see how utterly nice our hostel was. It's part hostel, part hotel, so you can only imagine. Like, I don't think I've even stayed in any hotels that were this fancy.

Our hostel gave us a map and we trekked out to the Old Town of Prague. We came upon the Prague Christmas Market which was way better than Budapest's Christmas Market (as in, it existed). There was a stage with traditional entertainment and tons of little shops with souvenirs, gifts, food, and drinks. It was wonderful to be able to look around at all the shops after spending a day on the train. I even had a palaciny (palachinka)! We had dinner and shopped a bit before wandering over to the Charles Bridge.

The Charles Bridge is absolutely gorgeous at night. They light the ends of the bridge with bottom front light to give the turrets this dark, mysterious look. The view of Prague itself, including Prague Castle, was amazing all lit up.

Back in the square, we trolled around a little more. At 9pm, we started on our Ghost Tour of Prague city. Our tour guide, Maya, was actually from San Diego and moved to Prague after she studied abroad there. How cool is that? She showed us around the city, telling us some of Prague's ghost stories and the mysterious deaths that have happened there.

After our tour, we went back to the hostel, showered, and slept. I was so wiped that I passed out the moment my head hit the fluffy pillow. I didn't even hear our roommates come in.

This morning, we woke up a little later than we had been and had breakfast at the hostel. I had buttermilk pancakes this morning! Real pancakes! I don't think I've been so excited for a breakfast food in my life. Once our nourishment was in our systems, we went in search of the Vysehrad Citadel.

The Vysehrad Citadel was pretty cool. The most impressive parts were the Basilica Minor and the Vysehrad Cemetery. The cemetery had a huge variety of headstones and graves in it. It was impressive. So many different types of headstones really reflecting the person who was buried. The Vysehrad Citadel wasn't much else other than some spectacular views of south Prague and a small kid's carnival going on. It was cool, but we wanted more.

Next, after some struggles with trams, we made it all the way up to Prague Castle. One thing we noticed about both Buda Castle and Prague Castle is that these castles love their inner walkways and plazas. Prague Castle loves its inner buildings, that's for sure. One of the most famous buildings in Prague is the Cathedral of St. Vitus. It is a huge cathedral in the middle of Prague Castle and absolutely stunning inside. They have a slightly smaller cathedral, St. Georg Cathedral, that was the worship space  for the nuns that resided near Prague Castle. Also within the walls of Prague Castle was Golden Lane, the place where writer Franz Kafka lived. Golden Lane's houses were all incredibly small, but very interesting. Some were converted to shops (such as Kafka's home), but some were left as exhibits of who used to live at Golden Lane. Prague Castle was very cool and I'm glad we figured out the tram situation since it's way up on a hill, overlooking the city of Prague.

Once we got down from Prague Castle, we walked across Charles Bridge to see it in the day time. It wasn't as impressive as it was at night, particularly since there were little vendors and artists all up and down the bridge. One group on the bridge was the Bridge Band, a Dixieland band of Czech gentlemen who play on the bridge. As a sucker for Dixieland and bands with tuba players, I bought a CD. Can't wait to listen to more of their music.

We did a little more shopping and eating prior to going into the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. Remember I mentioned in my last blog post that we were going to an Advent Vigil? Apparently, it was at 7am, not 7pm. Oops. At least we were able to go into the church at some time. Unfortunately, they don't allow pictures, so nothing from in there. It was pretty cool, but I don't think anything compares to St. Vitus. Tyn Church, though, is still way awesome from the outside. That I will not argue with.

For dinner, Gabby and I got traditional Czech food, but made for vegetarians and vegans! Most Czech food is meat-heavy, so Maya recommended us go to this restaurant for good veggie food. Definitely did not disappoint.

Prague was absolutely beautiful and I would love to come back here again just to relax. I cannot stress enough that you need to see pictures of Prague. I'll be posting them when we're not so stressed for time and when I have an internet connection. Currently, we're sitting in the lounge room of our hostel waiting to head over to the train station for our overnight train to Krakow. You know, no big deal.

Monday, December 12, 2011

dumps with nut.


I am Hungarian. Ok, mostly Hungarian. Now that I've visited Budapest, the capital of the motherland, I am more absolutely proud to say I'm Hungarian. Let me explain.

First of all, you should know that the Hungarians do not half-ass anything. Their statues are intense, their pálinka is strong, and they drive fast. When we first arrived in Budapest Airport, our driver picked us up and sped off toward the hostel. We were there in no time, excited to see the hostel and get started on our traveling the next day. We checked in and befriended a girl from our flight, Ellie, who was staying at our hostel as well. Gabby, Ellie, and I went to a traditional Hungarian restaurant for dinner since our flight covered all normal dinner times. We each got something different and ordered the best dessert ever: "dumps with nuts". The restaurant we went to did not translate their menu very well, so what they meant was doughy dumplings with nuts and vanilla pudding. Regardless, it was delicious.

The next morning, the three of us set out for the wonderful city of Budapest! Our first stop was Buda Castle. The castle is situated on the west bank of the Danube River in the Buda side of Budapest. Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced 'pesht), that came together to create the capital city. There wasn't much left of Buda Castle since the city has been destroyed so many times, but there were some buildings left. One of which housed the Budapest Historical Museum. We spent the afternoon looking at all the cool Budapest artifacts and reading about Budapest history before setting out to St. Mattias Cathedral and the Fishermen's Bastion. Both were very close to the castle, but had very different architectural styles. St. Mattias Cathedral had a very colourful roof, whereas the Fishermen's Bastion looked like it came straight out of 'The Little Mermaid'. Regardless, it was all super cool up by the castle. Beautiful views of the city as well.

One of Ellie's goals was to walk on Margit Island. It's a recreational island located in the middle of the Danube. It's said to be beautiful in the summer, but for those of us who find beauty in chilly near-winter weather, it was wonderful. The island has always been a leisure island for the Hungarians, so we weren't surprised when there were restaurants, running paths, and even a church on the island. It was nice to be able to walk around in a not-so populated area even for just half an hour.

From Margit Island, we went to Ellie's other destination: Heroes Square. Hungarian epicness really shines through at Heroes Square. There are statures of historical figures who help shape Hungary, as well as the angel Gabriel looking epic, and the four ethics. It was amazing. We also found a building nearby that looked like it belonged in Harry Potter so of course we went for a little inspection. Very cool.

By that time, it was pretty dark, so we went in search of dinner and landed at Kiodá, a small restaurant/pub where we tried pálinka. To the people on Budapest tourist websites who recommended trying pálinka: you people are assholes. If you want your chest to burn or if you enjoy drinking rubbing alcohol, then pálinka is the drink for you. Luckily, we were smart enough to get the smallest shots of the drink because I think we would have died if we had more. It is strong, let me tell you.

Alas, we did not find the Christmas Market that was advertised either of the nights we looked, but there were plenty of little shop-towns set up all over the city. They were selling all sorts of trinkets and food. Adorable.

That night, we bid ado to Ellie as she was leaving the next morning before we would be awake. It was nice to have someone else to hang out with who was just excited about this fabulous little city. She was off to Salzburg, which is a wonderful city in Austria. I was there in 2007, so I know she'll love it.

The next day, Gabby and I went out to St. Stephen's Basilica. It was the first thing on my list of things to do in Budapest. I'm not religious, but I have a thing for cathedrals. They're so beautiful and ornate. Hardly any other buildings match the intricate details like cathedrals do. St. Stephen's Basilica was no different. The interior has gold and marble everywhere, portraits and statues of saints, and holy water basins near every pillar. The organ was playing which totally set the mood. We eventually got chased out of the non-tourist area and took that as our leave.

We walked down the Hungarian National Museum which, to me, would have been better had more than the first room been written in English. There were tons of Hungarian artifacts, but for me, I enjoy knowing what the thing is and what it was used for. Unfortunately, it was all guesswork and we breezed through the exhibits. Hungarian is an interesting language that doesn't match English or German, despite their numerous German invasions. We're guessing it's Celtic mashed with Turkish mashed with Russian. Hungary has a history of being invaded constantly, only regaining their freedom from the communist hold of Russia about 15-20 years ago. After World War II, 80% of Budapest's buildings were destroyed. They haven't had the best or most positive history, but Budapest is still holding its head high.

Gabby and I went on our first Hop On, Hop Off bus tour that took us around the city. Surprisingly, we had seen 90% of the sights on the tour, but we didn't mind. One of the stops was the Gellert Citadel, located high up on Gellert Hill. We weren't going to walk up there ourselves. The bus tour had a 10 minute stop at the Citadel, so we frantically took tons of pictures and got back on the bus. It took us all the way back to the Oktogon, an eight-sided intersection near our hostel. We ate dinner at a place called 'Pizza EATaliano', which had delicious pizza. Om nom nom.

We departed from there and walked to the Nyugati Train Station. The Nyugati was beautiful—from the outside. Inside, it's a bleak train station. The adjacent McDonald's was more beautiful inside than the train station. Ridiculous, right?

We went back to the hostel and settled in for the night. This morning we got up early to catch our 9:25am train to Prague… that we are still currently on as I write this. We're getting closer to Prague and as we do, we're getting more excited. Tonight, we're attending an Advent Vigil at the Church of Our Lady before Tŷn and going on a ghost tour! We've only got a day and a half in Prague, so we're making the most of it!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

journey's end.

No, I'm not coming home yet, but that day is surely coming! I'm flying back to Chicago on December 20th and I couldn't be more excited. I miss home terribly and cannot wait to eat some awesome Chicago food.

And before you ask, "But Kelly, won't you miss Ireland?" I will say this: I will definitely miss all of my friends, the vast majority of people I've met, the ridiculousness of my flatmates, the general friendliness I encounter on a daily basis, and the beer. I won't miss the rainy icky weather, walking everywhere, the crazy colloquial terms, or grocery shopping. (It's different here. Trust me on this one.) One thing I definitely won't miss is school.

Because I never have another class ever again.

At 11am today, I ended my last class of my undergraduate career. Of course, I still have a paper due, but it's half-written and I feel pretty confident about it. Should be great. I'm absolutely thrilled to be finished with school entirely. I don't have plans to attend graduate school and get a MA or MFA or whatever, so this is it.

Crazy, right? It's strange to think that I've been in school for 17 years, from preschool all the way through college. I completed two Bachelors degrees from the University of Iowa in 3.5 years: a B.A. in Theatre Arts and a B.A. in Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. It's weird to be so close to honestly closing this chapter in my life, but I'm so incredibly ready for it. I feel that being in school for so long has closed me off to the real world. The only heartbreak I've ever really experienced was when I got bad grades on things. I want a challenge. I've been playing the school game so long that it's boring. I know my working habits and I know how to procrastinate like a champ.

So bring it on, Life. Can't wait for the problems you're gonna throw at me.

But before that, I'm gonna take a swing through Eastern Europe. Be right back.

Monday, November 21, 2011

death, disease, & destruction: edinburgh.

In case you haven't figured it out by now,
1. I went to Edinburgh this weekend.
2. All of my favourite parts of history center around three themes: death, disease, & destruction.

Let's start with getting to Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Lynda and I did not decide on the same flight, so she flew at the asscrack of dawn and I waited until twilight to fly. She had the whole day to herself while I struggled with the extortionists Ryanair. For those who have not flown in Europe, Ryanair is the worst airline in existence. They say they have the cheapest fares in Europe. That part they actually have right. It usually costs around 30 Euros to fly somewhere on Ryanair. How cheap! However, their fees are around 40 Euros, then they charge you if you check in late (40 Euros), if you need your ticket reprinted (40 Euros), if you need to check a bag (40 Euros)... You get the picture. They're the worst. So, having checked in late on the way to Edinburgh, I had to pay an additional 40 Euros to get on my flight. Ok, kind of pissed. Whatever. I'm going to Edinburgh! How exciting! My flight landed at 11:30pm and I got to the hostel around 12:15am. Food, then sleep. Good night!

The next morning, Lynda and I took our time getting up and getting ready for the day. The only thing on our list was Edinburgh Castle. We headed up there around noon and toured around the Castle. It is the best castle I've been in. It's still used and people still live there. Every day, they fire the One O'Clock Gun, a callback to when sailors would be setting out to sea. It would tell them it was one o'clock and they would set their watches to it. They still fire it today and you can hear it in many different parts of Edinburgh. Luckily, they shot the gun while we were at the castle and boy, was it loud. The rest of the Castle was beautiful. Inside are the Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny (only returned to Scotland in 1996 as a gesture to hopefully gain votes for the Conservative Party-- who still lost to Tony Blair).

We left the castle and went shopping! Lots of shops selling the same things at different prices. I bought a lot of stuff, including 4 different mugs. I'm kind of ridiculous. We finished shopping and went back to the hostel to eat dinner and watch some Firefly. Pretty chill day. Sunday we continued shopping, both of us purchasing kilts from a man named John who was hilarious. Lots and lots of shopping.

Sunday was our creepy day. We were scheduled for two tours: The City of the Dead's Underground Tour and Sandemans' Ghost Tour. When I signed us up for the City of the Dead tour at 1:30pm, I thought nothing bad would happen. After standing at the wrong tour for a few minutes, we managed to find the tour we were supposed to go on. Our tour guide Dave, who looked vaguely like Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', took us to the underground vaults of Edinburgh. They originally built the vaults as potential storage for the shops and things around Edinburgh. They kept expanding them, but people stopped using them for storage. Eventually, during a population upsurge, people began living in the dark, dank vaults. The vaults are pitch black; you can't see your hand in front of your face. There is no daylight, no ventilation, no toilets. It was a miserable existence down there. In the medium vaults, they slept around 25 men down there. When the Edinburgh fire broke out, people thought they would be safe in the vaults. Turns out, the little ventilation down there actually brought the smoke in. People died of smoke inhalation-- if they were lucky. Those who didn't die from inhalation died from the heat; the structure of the vaults essentially turned the space into a large oven. They were literally baked, with the temperature reaching around 800°.

The experience was intense, particularly when Dave brought us to the next room. It used to be a tavern where criminals and dodgy individuals went. People died down there. Someone was gutted. It is said that a Level 4 Poltergeist lives down there. People will go down into the vaults and come out with scratches on them. They'll feel nauseous, but if they move to the side, it'll be gone. There are cold spots. Many people pass out when they are in that room, but once they get out of the vaults, they're fine as they were going in. It's just not a good room to be in. I'm not a firm believer in poltergeists and demons, but I definitely believe in ghosts and spirits remaining on the earth. Naturally, I was super interested. Lynda, however, was freaking out beside me. We held onto each other because she was shaking like a leaf. While we were in that vault, one man in our group felt nauseous. He stepped to the side and was fine. He was the only one with a problem at first. I felt a little light-headed, so I took a step out, believing I might just be in a cold spot. Then the light-headedness wasn't going away. I raised my hand like Dave said if we felt like we were going to pass out, so I did. I really felt like I was going to pass out. He grabbed onto me, keeping me upright, then gave the rest of the group these instructions: "I'm going to take her out, everyone stay here." Dave hauled me out of the vaults, Lynda and another man following behind. I fought to keep consciousness, spacing out occasionally but never losing consciousness. I did lose feeling to my legs, forcing Dave to haul me a little higher and a little faster. It was so dark and I was losing the fight. Had I not seen the glow of daylight in the cracks of a door, I may have lost consciousness completely.

But as soon as we were outside, I was fine. The only oddness was that my ears needed to pop. Lynda and I stayed outside whereas the man and Dave returned to the group waiting around a single candle in the vault. As the group exited the building and saw me sitting on the ground, they gave me looks saying they thought I was an actor for the tour. Yet, the guy who was feeling nauseous (we think also the guy who helped me out of the vaults) knew. He knew I wasn't faking it. He gave me a nod of acknowledgement and went along his way. Lynda and I went with Dave back to the gift shop, talking about what could possibly be happening down there. I'm a skeptic, but I do believe ghosts exist; they just need to be shown in the proper environment. Dave told us his theory that he thinks it has to do with the pressure and atmosphere down in the vaults. Given that my ears still felt like they needed to pop, it made sense. I like busting stuff like that because I don't think poltergeists are that bad or even exist. (Mediums and psychics said it existed. Uh huh.)

After bidding Dave ado, we went back to the hostel to deposit our things, take a nap, and relax. After the traumatic experience in the vaults, my body needed a break. Watched a few episodes of 'Archer' and slept. When we woke up, we went for dinner at The Elephant House Cafe.

Now, The Elephant House Cafe held something in our hearts that only Harry Potter fans will appreciate. Why? It's the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'. From the windows, she could see two buildings that are thought to have inspired her: George Heriot's School and Edinburgh Castle. The cafe also has phenomenal food and drink, including a cocoa-Bailey's concoction called Fleur's Fantasy. We had dinner there and it was the best lasagna I've ever had. (Sorry, Mom.) In the bathroom, people have written notes to J.K. Rowling, thanking her for the series. Don't know if she's ever seen the writing, but she's so loved in Edinburgh.

Our second tour of the day, Sandemans Ghost Tour, was not nearly as traumatic as the earlier tour. Our tour guide Mark took us around New Town, showing us a supposedly haunted bridge as well as sights of witch burnings. He told us about the Earl of Drumlanrig, locked up in the Queensbury House attic because he was insane, breaking free and consuming the 12 year old servant boy who was instructed to look after him. It was gruesome, only escalated when we asked Mark how old the Earl was: 10. A 10 year old attacking and eating a 12 year old boy. Crazy. All of this told to us in a graveyard at 10pm. Perfect. We were also told about people being buried alive as well as a man who thought he was a vampire. This man killed his friend, ate his brain, drained his blood, and continued to believe he was a vampire and belonged with this girl they were fighting over. Turns out, the girl was fictional and the guy eventually killed himself over her. When did this happen? 2004. Crazy people never stop in Edinburgh, apparently. The tour ended with complimentary drinks in The Bank Bar.

We got up on Monday, checked out of our hostel, and went on a 3.5 hour tour of Edinburgh. A little backwards in planning, I know. Whatever. It was cool to see all this cool stuff regardless. We had seen some of it just trolling around Edinburgh, some on the Ghost Tour, some on the City of the Dead tour. Still fun. Went to Greyfriars Graveyard, Princes Street Gardens, Grassmarket Square, St Giles Cathedral, and more! At many of these locations, our tour guide James would elaborate on other information about Edinburgh and other parts of history. We definitely enjoyed the tour and James was a fantastic Edinburgh tour guide, considering he's from Portugal.

A tad more shopping was to be had, so we hit up a couple more shops. Considering we couldn't fit much else in our bags, we called it a day and got our stuff to head to the airport. Unfortunately, we got a later bus to the airport than expected and this caused a cataclysmic series of events.

We got to the desk to check in, remembering how upset the flight attendants were when we showed up for our London flight without going there first. Whatever. Well, the desk attendant decided to give us grief about being 3 minutes late for our boarding time. Bitch, the plane has not left yet. Then, Lynda's ticket was printed double-sided, so she needed to reprint her return ticket. However, this is Ryanair, so it would have cost her 40 Pounds to get her ticket reprinted, essentially making her miss the flight anyway. At this point, I went on to the flight, feeling like an awful friend for leaving her behind. I sprint to the gate, my dormant asthma coming back in full force. I get to the gate, get my ticket scanned, and start down the ramp. Since you're not done scrolling, you know this is not where the story ends. The guy stopped me, saying that I needed to check one of my bags because I exceeded the one bag limit. I had gotten on the Dublin-> Edinburgh flight with two bags, but oh no. That's not what the Edinburgh people do. They are strict about the policies. I was livid at this point, profanity littering my language like a group of insolent high schoolers. So I have to pay 40 Pounds to check my backpack. I give them my credit card, but when she rings the desk, she couldn't make a credit card payment because someone was canceling their flight. (Lynda, presumably.) So she asks for cash. I don't have cash, I tell her, because I was trying to get rid of my pounds before getting back to Ireland. I'm then instructed to go to a different gate to get cash. Seriously?! I'm standing at the gate, just let me on with my backpack. What kind of deal is this? I had apparently talked back enough and been upset enough that the attendant at the gate nearly told the plane to leave without me. Oh god. Waterworks started as my natural defense. I was scared I was going to miss the flight because they were making me get cash. She let me get the cash and get back, but when someone else asked me how I was, I responded with upset and angry. They all knew I didn't give a shit. I wanted them to know how unfair their policies were. I have never been on an airline that honestly does not care about their passengers. Ryanair doesn't look at their passengers as people; they're just cash cows, waiting to be milked.

Needless to say, I safely landed in Dublin, boarded the bus to the train, and got on my train. I'm still on the train, still an hour away from Cork. For those who are wondering, Lynda managed to get a flight home, paying 243 Pounds for a last-minute flight on Aer Lingus from Edinburgh->Cork. It sucks, but she stated in her Facebook status that Ryanair will feel her dad's wrath. I fucking hope so.

On a lighter note, I'm headed back to Cork and Mark's meeting me at the train station, maybe with pizza. Either way, I am ready to just sit with him and watch an episode of 'Psych' or 'Dexter'. I just want to get my mind off all the Ryanair ridiculousness and remember how awesome Edinburgh was. My next trip isn't until December 9th, but it's the biggest. It's a week-long trip through Eastern Europe: Budapest, Prague, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Munich. I'm going with Gabby, which will be awesome. We're both super excited because it's such a different trip than what many of our friends have done while in Europe. We've got our first fun planning session on Friday when we'll be picking all the fun things we want to do in all these different places. I'll definitely be blogging throughout the time I'm gone because that is just too long to have to remember everything that happens. We're traveling primarily by plane/train, so that will be great blogging time.

Other than that, Lynda and I are also hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner with some of our Irish friends! We are making a whole bunch of traditional American Thanksgiving dishes and invited many of our friends over. I'm super excited, mostly because it'll be my first Thanksgiving with only friends. Most of my Thanksgivings were spent with family, and though I love them dearly, it wasn't always my scene. Now, I'm responsible for the cooking bit and it's with friends. It's gonna be fun.

I also have a bunch of essays I need to start on and get done before my giant trip with Gabby. It'll be interesting because I haven't been going to one of my classes. (As Rick Perry would say, "Oops!") The other two shouldn't be so difficult, but I'm still not looking forward to them. Ah, well.

Everything else has been going really well. Been spending a lot of time with Mark, Gabby & Kathryn, and Kaitlin. Still love the WARPS kids. Definitely going to invest in some of the games I've been playing so I have them back in the States in my own apartment.

I know this is more of an Los Angeles blog thing, but I've also been applying to jobs back home and contacting various people about things. I haven't heard back from many of them, but those who I have heard back from have been incredibly helpful. I've got one exciting contact and I'm waiting to hear back from them. Hopefully it'll result in some sort of assistantship or job or something. We'll see! If you want to read more about my adventures regarding Los Angeles, check out my other blog it's spanish for "angels". Yay for shameless plugs!

Well, I will keep you all updated on Thanksgiving and other adventures in Cork. Until then, have a great day/night!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

brrrrrlin.


I went to Berlin this past weekend and it was cold. Everywhere I went I felt like I had a constant brain freeze. However, despite the cold Berlin turned out to one of my best trips yet. It was a 5 day, 4 night trip to one of the best countries on Earth-- by myself.

Thursday night I had made the unfortunate decision to stay up all night to catch my 6am train to Dublin for my noon flight. Mark said that I was welcome to sit with him at his place and he would accompany me to the train station in the morning. Needless to say, this was the worst decision making we had ever had, together and separately. I managed to make my train, but I was so tired. I got to the airport, feeling like death, to board my plane to Berlin. I knew my exhaustion had hit an all-time high when I don't remember take-off because I was already passed out. Exciting, right?

I landed in Berlin and I was required to take the S-Bahn and the U-Bahn (the train system in Berlin) to get to my hostel. Let me tell you that the travel was worth it. My hostel was wonderful. The staff was so friendly, the beds were comfy, and my 8 bed mixed dorm did not smell like sweaty balls. I'm pretty certain that this was heaven. I ended up staying in for the night, reading. It was too late for me to go anywhere by myself and besides, I was still exhausted. I needed all my energy for the weekend ahead of me.

Inside the Berliner Dom
Saturday morning I decided to check out a list of museums my friend Sarah had recommended me. She had studied in Berlin previously and therefore compiled a list of must-sees in the city. My first stop was the Berliner Dom, a beautiful cathedral on Museum Island. It hosts some beautiful views of the city from its gallery after you've climbed the 267 steps to the top. On the way up, I checked out the cathedral's service area and there was a church service going on. Now, I'm not a religious person, but I do have a soft spot for organ music. The acoustics in the Berliner Dom were beautiful. I managed to get a short video of it, but it's not nearly as impressive as actually being there.

After the Berliner Dom, I went over to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum). It had soooo much interesting stuff in there. I can't even go into detail about it. The Museum essentially outlined all of German history from something like the 8th Century to the early 1990s. It's an incredibly collection of artifacts and information. Long story short, I took too many pictures and looked at too many things.

Holocaust Memorial
I wandered for a little bit before coming upon the Brandenburg Tor, the historic landmark gracing the back of German Euro cents. Down the street was the Holocaust Memorial and the Homosexuality Monument. The Holocaust Memorial was a block of sidewalk that upon reaching it, it's just some low-raised black stone boxes, but as you walk past it further, you discover that some of them are at least 15 feet tall. It goes deep into the ground and only raises a little bit above level, a strong metaphor of how the Holocaust affected Germans and Berliners alike. The Homosexuality Monument was dedicated to those who fought for their right to love who they wanted during and after WWII. It was a beautiful monument. There was only a small window to look in and inside the monument was a short film of two men kissing gently. It definitely shows the progressiveness of German society to have something like this not only in the public sphere, but have signs directing to it in a very busy area. (It's literally across the street from the Holocaust Memorial.)

Me at the Berlin Wall
A bit further down the street was Potsdamer Platz where sections of the Berlin Wall still remained. There was a plaque on the ground showing the years the wall was up and which side you would have been on where you were currently standing. Even the ground was tinted differently as to where the wall was. On the Platz itself was an Austrian Christmas festival with food houses and a giant snow-tubing slide. It was quiant with a fun atmosphere. Sadly, I only got to grab something to eat before it got dark and I had to head back to the hostel for the night.

The next day, I woke up early to head over to Alexanderplatz to meet a tour for Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Unfortunately, the tour guides never showed up, so being my pro-active self, I went by myself. They gave instructions to go by yourself on the brochure. It was only an hour train ride to Oranienburg up north and a short walk from the train station, so why not?

Washroom in Bunk 38
I have a particular fascination with concentration camps. I saw the bunks where the prisoners slept, the potato peeling room, and the infirmary. At Sachsenhausen, they created 'work shops' where they kept prisoners with specific skills that would benefit the Nazis. For example, there was a forgery work shop where 24 prisoners were kept to forge British money to invalidate and ruin the British system. Some say that this forgery was beyond perfect craftsmanship. It's unbelievable to imagine all the things the Nazis used their prisoners for besides punching bags. They experimented on the prisoners; many of the doctors in the infirmary practiced their techniques and tried new theories on the prisoners. What the Nazis did was unforgivable, but there's something that's troublingly admirable about their efficiency, organization, and ideas.

Sachsenhausen Memorial inside the crematorium walls
Two parts that disturbed me the most at Sachsenhausen were two aspects I never saw on my first concentration camp visit to Dachau: the mortuary and the crematorium. When I stepped inside the mortuary, I felt as though I was in an episode of "Ghost Hunters", but a place that was definitely haunted. My heart rate increased significantly and the air felt heavy. For just a minute, I was down there by myself. Never again. The second, the crematorium, held the biggest physical reaction I had. At Sachsenhausen, in order to preserve the foundations of the crematorium, the memorial society built a protective, temperature controlled white building around it. This means, you cannot see the crematorium foundations unless you go inside and around the memorial monument. Instantly upon seeing the crematorium, I felt like I was going to sob. Heart-wrenching, chest-collapsing sobs. The intense feeling subsided to being a dull, terrified ache as I read the information for the crematorium and what they did to the prisoners here. It was difficult, but I managed to read all of it and take a few pictures. Like Dachau, I left with a serious weight in my heart that lifted once I got to the train. It hurts to visit concentration camp. If you ever have a chance to go to one, do it. It really grounds you and makes you truly think about where we've come from.

After Sachsenhausen, I made it back to the city with a little time to be able to get over to the Neues National Galerie for some modern art. Sadly, the permanent exhibit was closed, so I instead walked over to the Topographie des Terrors, a free museum dedicated to the Nazi occupation of Berlin. I didn't stay long since my brain had had enough of the Nazis for the day (not to mention I was starving). Checkpoint Charlie wasn't too far away, so I went over there to take a look at what Sarah deemed an overrated tourist spot. It was, but that was okay. The history behind it is really interesting, so make sure you look it up. I grabbed some disappointing gnocchi for dinner and went back to the hostel for the night.

From the TV Tower
I slept in Monday and awoke to next to zero plans. Of course, I took the U-Bahn down to Alexanderplatz to figure out what I wanted to do from there. Day one I had seen the TV Tower and it wasn't until day two that I realized you could take a tour of it. Naturally, I seized the opportunity and paid the 11 Euros to get a 360 degree view of Berlin. It was gorgeous up there! You could see all around (obviously) and there were some amazing views. I wasn't up there long, but it was still super cool.

My second planned destination of the day was a comic book shop I had seen an advertisement for at an U-Bahn station. It had some German comic books that I had read before and loved, so naturally, I bought them and added them to my souvenirs' bags from earlier that day.

From the East Side Gallery
I didn't want to be carrying my bags around all day and I was a little tired, so I went back to the hostel and rested for a little bit before trekking out to the East Side Gallery, a long strip of the Berlin wall that was painted in remembrance of the separated nation. There were so many wonderful paintings and I took a lot of pictures of them. Many of them spoke of peace and unity, some of them reflected the moments that happened during the fall of the Wall, and some didn't make any sense to me. There were a few that I wished I could have talked to the artist to understand where they were coming from in the painting and what they wanted to have represented. I guess I'll never know, though.

That night, I ate a free dinner made at my hostel and met a few American students who were studying in England. We hung out for the night and I gave them information for their next few days in Berlin. It was nice to have some people to talk to after three days of near-solitude.

At the train station
and incredibly disgruntled.
Traveling home was a nightmare. I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, only to discover that my flight had been delayed due to "unknown circumstances". Great. An hour later, we took off and I was forced to listen to a small Polish child in front of me squealing about everything. I wanted to reach over the seat and squish his head like a grapefruit. Then, due to my delayed flight, I missed my 7pm train back to Cork by five minutes. I was devastated, tired, and hungry. The next train wasn't until 9pm, so I sat and waited. Once I boarded the train and got comfortable, a woman and her rambunctious child sit down at my table. You have to be kidding me, at this point. I was so fed up an hour into the three hour journey, that I took my belongings and moved cars. It was necessary. I got back to Cork only to discover that it was raining. Thankfully, Mark was there to walk me home otherwise I think I would have broke down sobbing. The whole traveling ordeal, from leaving my hostel to getting to Cork took 12 hours. I wanted to die. It was a terrible end to a great weekend.

This weekend I'm hanging out in Cork and spending some time with Mark. Currently, I'm doing loads #3 & #4 of laundry that desperately needed to be done. Oh boy.

In the works:

  • planning a trip to Edinburgh with Lynda
  • planning our week-long excursion to Eastern Europe with Gabby
School's been going okay. I'm not looking forward to writing essays, but it'll all be over soon. Thank god.

Well, kmagz over and out.