To GT-Lorraine...and Beyond!

Over 25 years of academic excellence and adventure

Category: Travels (Page 1 of 12)

Just Some Twerps in Antwerp

Marcel, sitting in a basket being adorable, and the equally adorable wedding album of our hosts!

Last weekend, I went on my first international trip this semester, to Belgium! After arriving late at night on Thursday and fiddling with confusing key mechanisms (a feature that seems to me to be universal among European doors), our merry band of five managed to enter our home for the next three days, a lovely three-story townhouse. We never met our AirBNB hosts in person, but before long I wanted them to be my new best friends: they had fruits and veggies growing on their terrace, lots of board games, a stamp collection, carnivorous plants (!!!), and best of all, a very shy but adorable cat named Marcel. (It became my personal mission to win over Marcel by the end of our stay, which I finally succeeded in doing by giving him his breakfast on the day of our departure.)

The menu may have been in English, but the hot chocolate was decidedly Belgian (and delicious!)

     On Friday morning, we walked into the city in hopes of finding breakfast at an open market that someone had heard of, but when we arrived, we discovered that said market was not a food market at all, but a furniture market with no food to be found. Luckily, there was a delightful (if somewhat touristy) breakfast place nearby. It was here that we had our first taste of Belgian chocolate—the hot chocolate we ordered consisted of fine melted flakes of chocolate stirred in warm milk and had a generous helping of whipped cream.

 

You know you’re in Belgium when you see shops that say Chocoholic and I <3 Waffles right next to each other. You also know you are a tourist, but that’s ok.

After walking around and exploring the city for some time, we encountered yet another classic Belgian food: frites. Frites are French fries (ironic) and they’re typically sold with any of a variety of amazing sauces. Between the five of us, we tried mayonnaise (the most traditional topping), curry, and curry ketchup—all were delicious, and I ended up quite enjoying the mayonnaise despite my initial hesitation. We ate them for lunch under the Cathedral of Our Lady, near a statue depicting the legend of the name of Antwerp, which is Antwerpen in Dutch. According to folklore, the city was once ruled by a giant named Antigoon until a hero arrived, severed the giant’s hands, and threw them in the river; in Dutch, “hand throwing” is hand-werpen, which eventually turned into Antwerpen. As a result, the hand motif is visible all around the city, from little

The Cathedral of Our Lady was a key landmark in Antwerp, always visible as we wandered the city. You can see it here next to some crow-stepped gables, a traditional rooftop style in Flanders.

hand-shaped chocolates to hand sculptures adorning the walls of the MAS, the museum we visited later that day.

 

     After visiting the museum and touring a brewery where we learned how beer is made, we continued wandering the city and came across a busy square with jazz and swing dancing! It was wonderful fun to watch, and the songs were in English so we could understand the lyrics. Interestingly enough, in addition to more croon-y and traditional sounding jazzy tunes, they also played “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book! We had our first Belgian waffles later that night (mine with strawberries and cream!), which were even more delicious than I had hoped. Waffles there aren’t made with batter but instead with quite a thick dough, and they were sweeter and more cake-like than waffles in the U.S.

We had a makeshift picnic dinner on the train returning from Bruges. After the conductor came to check our tickets, he wished us “Bon appetit!”

The next day we took a day trip to Bruges, which was about an hour’s train ride away. While Antwerp had been busier and more modern, Bruges was almost like Disneyland, with its cobblestone streets and picturesque facades, the horse-drawn carriages around every corner, and the abundance of gift shops. We wandered the city for a long time and in the process happened upon many unplanned but wonderful things. We stumbled a fencing and sword-fighting tournament between two windmills, where a friendly Dutch man explained to us in detail all the rules of the games, and we also ran into an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for longest toast ever, with a line stretching hundreds of people long! It’s certainly fun to plan things during travels and to try to see as much as possible, but with all the many pleasant surprises we encountered in Belgium, this trip has made me an advocate of wandering around just to see what wonders you’ll discover.

Why Day Trips are the Best

Waking up with it still being dark outside is not always the most pleasant experience, especially when you are not a morning person. I was not the happiest person as I dragged myself out of my bed in the GTL dorms at 4:30 AM. Entering the train station, I immediately made a beeline for Starbucks, as it was my travel ritual and a dire necessity at this point. For the first weekend in a long time, I was traveling more locally around Europe. When I say travel locally, I am implying that the train ride would be less than 2 hours. This weekend, I decided to travel to Colmar, France and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg!

The Old Town of Colmar

The first stop on my weekend travels was Colmar, France. My friend and I arrived at the train station in Colmar at 9 AM. When we initially planned our travel times to arrive in the city, we thought that the city would just be starting its day. Little to our surprise, the people in Colmar surely like to get their rest we found out, as everything was closed until about 10:30 AM. When the city did awaken, it was a peaceful experience to see schools in session on a Friday, coffee shops and stores opening, and the the scent of freshly baked pretzels filling the air in the market. We had a great time as we were able to go shopping, try new foods, do a boat ride in this small town affectionately called “Little Venice,” and see the beautiful, colorful, quaint little houses of the Old Town.

The awesome part of doing a day trip to Luxembourg the next day was that I was able to visit another country! Luxembourg was actually on my list of countries to visit because it is the second richest county in the world, and I was dying to see what the hype was all about. Stepping off the train, we entered a very modern looking city only for it to drastically change into an old, medieval-looking town. In Luxembourg City, the old forts and castle still stand in the city center. It was a great city to see in one day! Everything was conveniently placed in the center of Luxembourg, and there were enough museums, shopping, sites, restaurants, and local life to fill one day.

The best part about day trips is that we saw all the attractions we wanted to see and ate all the food our hearts desired, and then we were able to go back to GTL! It was so refreshing to take a train without a reservation, explore a new city on my bucket list, see the change in culture between French cities and neighboring countries, and be able to sleep in my bed at the end of the day. Another perk about day trips is that the stress of finding a place to sleep for the weekend, budgeting for meals and activities for three days, and organizing reservations and transportation is essentially nonexistent. It was also nice to not feel stressed wondering if you packed all the essential clothes needed for a weekend, or trying to bustle to the train station after classes.

Inside the Bock Casemates

While I can say that traveling to a place for an entire weekend is a more immersive experience, day trips are a great alternative if you are tired from extensive traveling, want to catch up on school work, trying to save some money, or visiting a smaller nearby city. I think it is a great idea to try a day trip at least once while studying at Georgia Tech Lorraine. Below I included a list of things we did in Colmar and Luxembourg City to give a small idea of what can be accomplished in a day trip!

Colmar, France

Bretzels in Colmar

The city is absolutely gorgeous! It is colorful and full of little senior citizen tourist groups everywhere. When I visited here, I felt extremely comfortable and safe. The locals here were very kind, and many spoke English well. If you visit here, make sure to use your student ID for the Statue of Liberty museum, take a boat ride on the river, and eat one of their bretzels!

List of Things to See:  Old Town, shopping, a boat ride in Little Venice, Musee Bartholdi (free with student ID), Presbytere Protestant de Colmar, Collegiate Saint-Martin de Colmar, Schwendi Fountain

Must Try Local Foods: Bretzel (pretzel with melted cheese) and kugelhopf (sponge cake with nuts and cherry brandy)

 

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

In comparison to all the cities I have visited so far, I would definitely say that Luxembourg City has been most of the modern. It was very safe, peaceful, and mainly everything was located around the city center. We only needed about 5-6 hours to get a lot done in our day.

View of Luxembourg City from the top of the Bock Casemates

List of Things to See: Notre-Dame Cathedral of Luxembourg, the markets of Place Guillaume, the statue of Duke William II, Bock Casemates (5 euros with student ID), Palace of the Grand Duke, Luxembourg City History Museum (free with student ID), Adolphe Bridge, Neumunster Abbey

Must Try Foods: Chocolate House and ice cream

Bayeux—A Historic Treasure

Both the Bayeux Cathedral and the clouds were stunningly majestic.

Last weekend marked the official beginning of my travels from Georgia Tech-Lorraine! My friend Sarah and I chose to stay within France for our first excursion, staying in the beautiful town of Bayeux and taking a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel on Saturday.

This unassuming little apricot croissant (I think this qualifies as a croissant? Forgive me if I’m wrong) is the best pastry I’ve had in France so far.

On Friday, we woke up early to a brisk, sunny morning and ventured from our adorable AirBNB into the quiet town. We were staying just a stone’s throw away from the incredible Bayeux Cathedral, which we used to orient ourselves throughout our time there—when we had first arrived at the train station the afternoon before, we hadn’t even bothered to map our way to the town because we could just walk towards the massive cathedral in the distance! After admiring the church and wandering for a bit, we bought pastries at a small bakery and ate them on a bench in a deserted square; it was a very peaceful time.

 

One night, the cathedral was lit up in beautiful shades of pink, purple, and blue (one of my very favorite color combinations).

We then got ticket bundles to 3 museums for only

This stone road marker, used to delineate the distance between towns, is a relic of the Roman Empire; I believe it’s from 46 BC.

12€, which was pretty nifty. The first was the Musée D’Art Et D’Histoire Baron Gérard, which covered a fascinating variety of topics about the region from Stone Age artifacts to lace-making to modern art. Next we went to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a 75-meter long tapestry depicting in intricate detail the story of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. For reference, 75 meters long is more than two-thirds of the length of an American football field (and more than three fourths the length of a soccer field!). Last was the Musée Mémorial de la Bataille du Normandie, telling the story of the Invasion of Normandy near the conclusion of World War II in Europe.

 

These stone arrowheads date back to 2000 BC!

So much history in one day was a lot to process. Especially with our visits book-ended by such a huge time span: we started the day seeing stone arrowheads from thousands of years ago, and ended it with relics of a battle that took place just 70 years ago, so recently and yet so long ago at the same time. It really hit me with how incomprehensibly vast our history is as humans, and impressed upon me the sheer volume of the human experience.

The Battle of Normandy museum was most affecting and most poignant to me—there’s just so much information about an event that took place in such a small period of time (under 2 months), in such a small geographical area, but that was so historically significant. So much planning, so much tension and anxiety, so many lives were forever changed or lost during this one battle in this one war.

That’s the most amazing thing to me, is that there are these places and events that have so profoundly affected the course of history that we have but a cursory knowledge of, and there’s no way to comprehend all of it. Before visiting Bayeux, I hardly knew anything about William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, other than that he conquered something and that he was from Normandy, but someone in the distant past made an entire tapestry about it explaining all the events surrounding his conquest. I had learned about the Battle of Normandy and D-Day in school, but never about the details of the troop movements, the meticulous planning of the military, the journalists who risked their lives to cover the invasion, the logistics of the army hospitals, the reactions of the French towns upon liberation.

Items used and owned by soldiers during the Battle of Normandy, including shaving cream, cigarettes, and a French phrasebook.

Seeing footage of bombs and rubble, of troops marching through the same idyllic French villages I’ve been wandering, I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity not just to enjoy the present, but to learn about the deep history of my home away from home—that I can walk the same streets that have endured so much and picture them in a different era, a different time.

I Just Fell in Love with the City of Love

A couple of weekends ago, I had one of the best weekends of my entire life. It still does not seem real that I visited Paris, France! I was finally able to check this off my bucket list – I always dreamed of going here since I was six years old. Thankfully, Paris certainly did not disappoint.

My first weekend travel was nothing short of great and relaxing. While my week at GTL is usually filled with homework, studying, and trying to eat decent meals; stepping off the Eurail train in Paris completely washed out any negative emotion I may have felt. Flowing into the rush of hundreds of people walking to catch the metro, I ordered my one way tickets to the metro for my stay in Paris. Once my friend and I made to where we were staying, dropped off our bags, and ate lunch at a local café, we headed to the most well-known and must see attractions in Paris, the Eiffel Tower.

The anticipation as we made our way from the metro and saw it ascending towards the sky from a distant had us screeching with excitement as our inner younger selves started to come out. As we got closer to the Eiffel Tower, it grew larger and larger as it filled the center of the city. It was so beautiful that words could not even describe its intricate steel frame-work surrounded by photographers, tourists, people blowing bubbles for kids, and smiling faces from all around the world. I was able to take a ton of pictures and get a better idea of just how big the Eiffel Tower was by taking flights of stairs up to the top. For 5 euros, I was able to walk up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower! You may think that the second level doesn’t sound like much, however, the tower is massive. Massive. I think that walk up flight after flight of stairs consisted of my entire workout for the week. It may be stereotypical and tourist-y, but climbing up the Eiffel Tower and seeing that view is something I would highly recommend for anyone to do if they visit Paris.

To continue our adventures in Paris, we walked around the first day with nothing other designs or plans in our minds. We were just walking around on the streets, people watching, and going into local stores. Being the over-planner that I usually am when it comes to traveling, it was nice to not have a concrete plan for the day as it made the experience more fun, carefree, and memorable. As a result of our wandering, we were able to see the Arc de Triomphe, eat at a local pizza place, see the Hotel de Plaza, and pass by many bakeries. To end the night, I was able to sit in the chilly night air at the top of a boat, as we took a river cruise through Paris passing many of the famous, historical landmarks. The most interesting part of this river boat cruise to me aside from the landmarks was seeing: the restaurants in boats, a dance festival, and the local college crowd leisurely hanging out along the river.

The next day, we were able to visit the Louvre for free, see the Mona Lisa, go shopping in Paris, visit the Notre Dame, and eat the best crêpe I ever had in my entire life! I truly fell in love with Paris when I visited, and would definitely be visiting there many more times to come. French culture is something I am coming to appreciate more and more. The way people interact with one another in France, take their time throughout the day, and gleam with happiness makes me love the country even more.

Barcelona Monday

The train strike calendar.

Life in a foreign culture is polarizing. Trains are now constant companions, yet many of those involved in the system seem to be attempting to dampen my fierce joy in extensive public transportation. I would venture to say that I am experienced in train riding, but all my anxious backup plans and preparation still leave factors I cannot control. The SNCF (French train company) workers have all decided to begin striking.

Now, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I have developed the theory that Europeans don’t actually get more vacation time than Americans, they just strike consistently enough to satisfy any need to take off work. Earlier this semester, the employees of a nearby prison decided to strike and make bonfires every day for a while, which itself was concerning. Now, SNCF took it further and is striking 2 days of every 5 for the remainder of the semester. While I am unsure of the exact implications of this, it seems highly discouraged to travel within France on these days. This is slightly inconvenient as a resident of France. Despite obstacles, we persevere.

For the most part, we GTL students are a nomadic people. This tendency is tempered by the necessity to be back bright and early for 8:30 am circuits class on Monday. As a result, and in keeping with the defiance of the local culture, an underground movement has developed the concept of a “Barcelona Monday.” In entirely unintentional circumstances, it is evidently common for students who have traveled all the way to the titular city to “miss their train,” forcing them to forgo Monday classes for another day in Spain. While the frequency of these circumstances is a bit skeptical, it arises out of the legitimate difficulty of consistently returning on time while maximizing travel. I always try to have backup plans and avoid taking the last train for this reason. An extra hour of travel would be nice but is not worth the 40-minute walk at 2 am if you end up getting back after the last bus.

This weekend resulted in a new level of travel-related struggling. As mentioned, SNCF has designed a schedule as inconvenient and difficult to remember as possible. This wasn’t much of a problem after deciding to leave at 6 am on Friday, instead. On Sunday we miraculously avoid the striking of the French, but were no match for the superior inefficiencies of the Germans. Despite their reputation for engineering, all of my issues with delayed trains (excluding those in Italy which are honestly expected) have been in Germany. This time, a 35-minute delay caused us to miss a 20-minute connection (long by our normal standards). Of course, we had backup options and elected to splurge slightly by getting a last-minute reservation high-speed train instead of taking the option that would get us home after midnight. This plan was promptly jeopardized when our train arrived at the exact latest time we needed to leave to make our connection possible. The clown-car-like amount of people who poured out brought some levity, though this took so long as to dash any hope of making the next train. Just to emphasize the point, the train proceeded to arrive 60 minutes late, leaving most of the passengers stranded.

I am no stranger to the ephemeral homelessness of sleeping in a train station just to be kicked out at 1 am while your train leaves at 4. This night was to be much longer and would still result in being late for my first class. At this point, giving in and paying for a hotel seemed to be the best option, despite the already lost money on the reservation train. Yet in times of trouble, friends come out of the woodwork. This most recent delay resulted in meeting up with 3 other GTL students in the same predicament, as well as accidentally befriending a German-Canadian student on the train, who planned to major in Mechanical Engineering as most of us are doing now. Banding together proved to save the situation for us all.

To attempt to reclaim the money for the reservation, we ran into a crowd at the information desk. In contrast to their spotty work schedule, the SNCF employees worked hard when they were there. We soon found ourselves on a list for a free hotel room, and our fellow GTL student who hadn’t made a reservation managed to make it on the list also. I emphasize the importance in trying. Instead of accepting the fate we were used to, just simply showing up got us handed a hotel stay, a free dinner, and an excuse to miss class, though Strasbourg is not quite as thrilling as Barcelona.

Our hotel instructions were fairly vague, simply stating to go to the Ibis across the street. We were then met with two Ibis hotels, one specified to be the budget version, so of course we went to the full experience first. They feigned ignorance of any accommodation for us, and discretely explained that there were in fact three Ibis hotels: this one (red, for “stop, you’re too poor”), the blue one next door (notably avoiding the word “budget” prominently displayed on its sign), and the green one that we had not seen (speculated to be located in a dark alley on the other side of town). The blue turned out to be our home away from home, and we settled in, thankful for our welfare-esque dinner boxes and shared beds after offering to house other GTL friends who had not gotten rooms of their own. Awkward sleeping arrangements are welcome in comparison to a station bench.

Senegal: JAMM REKK!

So, this spring break I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places in the entire world, Senegal. Last summer, through Georgia Tech’s LBAT (Language in Business and Technology) program, I was able to spend three months in Senegal doing an internship and taking French classes. These three months definitely had their challenges, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I was so grateful to be able to go back for Spring Break.

That being said, I am trying to not double-dip with my blog posts, so if you want to read about my previous trip to Senegal you can find out all about it at www.robbytakesdakar.weebly.com !

I flew into Senegal very, very, very early Friday morning (most of their flights land and take off around 2 am). I rented an AirBNB from a wonderful family in a fun neighborhood (Sacre-Coeur 3), so I had the address. It was about a 20-minute drive from the airport and taxis in Senegal are very safe, so I was just planning on getting one after I made it through customs. That is, until I land in Senegal and realize that the new airport is open and I am now about 50km outside of the city at 2 am. Not exactly an ideal situation. However, I thought back to a Senegalese proverb, “ndank ndank muy japp golo ci nay.” Which literally translates to, “little by little you will catch the monkey in the forest,” but is used to mean have patience and everything will work out.

So, I do some quick research and find that the average fare for a taxi is around 40 euros, or there is a shuttle that runs directly downtown for 10 euros. I was definitely a little nervous about taking an unknown shuttle 50 km at 2 in the morning, but since I had been to the country before and knew how patient and accepting Senegalese people are, I decided to go for it!

Took the shuttle no problem, got off near the largest soccer stadium, and got a taxi to take me to the location of my AirBNB that I had marked on my map. Now, the tricky thing about taxis in Senegal is that Google/Apple Maps/Waze are not used. The way it works is that you give the neighborhood of your destination, a little tricky if you’re a toubab (wolof word for white foreigner, not usually used hatefully), with nothing more than a street address. I got through this part with no problem. Then, they will ask you what part of the neighborhood you want to go to. The tricky thing is that you still can’t use street names, you have to use landmarks. The harder thing is knowing which landmarks are acceptable. For example, one time I tried to use this huge shopping center, “Central Park” as a landmark, and the driver had no idea what I was talking about. However, other times I have successfully used a deformed tree to direct a driver. Usually, when it gets to this point, I direct the driver close enough and walk the difference. However, this time, the location that I marked was right near the interstate and I was able to direct him exactly there. 3:30 am and I finally made it to my AirBNB, right? WRONG. I had saved the wrong GPS location and had absolutely no idea where to go. So here I am, 4am, a 6’2” red headed toubab lost with a giant suitcase. That is how you get to know the character of a city.

I find someone sleeping in the street, and I gently wake him to ask him for directions. This in turn starts a chain reaction where he wakes someone else who has to go buy credit for their phone so I can call my host and then the host talks to my two new companions and explains to them where to go, so we set off. We get there, and the two men that helped me turn to leave, not even expecting any compensation. That is such a typical experience in Senegal. People are so ready to help you and are so willing to go out of their way to guide you. It was an amazing start to the trip.

For the rest of this post, I am going to break-out of a chronological narrative and just talk about the highlights of the trip because I would otherwise write an entire novel.

The Family:

My AirBNB family was composed of a man from the Ivory Coast that married a woman from Senegal and were raising their two children: Momo (about 2 years old) and a 10 month-old infant whose name I do not know. Momo was so shocked that a toubab was able to dingue oulof (speak wolof), so every time he saw me after the first day, he would SCREAM “Na nga def?” (how are you?) over and over and over. He was so sweet and we ended up spending a decent amount of time together. One day, when I was leaving, he grabbed on to my leg and cried and didn’t want me to go. We even watched Mickey Mouse and Peppa Pig together on Netflix. The family also invited me to eat with them every single day. Unfortunately, I was only available to eat with them once. We all sat around one bowl and had ceebu jen (rice and fish) and it was absolutely delicious. There is a special type of community that is formed when the entire table shares one dish. Often times, the women will cut off pieces of fish and vegetables and pass it to the others around the table. I like to do this gesture as well because it shows that you are thinking of the others. On my last day, I had some fruit left over that I would not be able to take on the plane, so I gave it to the mom of the family. By the afternoon, she had taken it and turned it into a delicious orange-grapefruit juice that she shared with everyone. This was the absolute best experience that I could have hoped for.

The Weather:

Hear me out, I love Metz, France so much. But, it was very nice to see the sun. Throughout the week, it was between 17 and 23 celsius, with dips in the temperature at night. It was also sunny with pretty strong winds throughout my stay. I was so happy to see the sun, so I spent a lot of my time outdoors and even went to the beach. The Senegalese people, who were mostly wearing jackets (and even winter coats at night), looked at me like I was crazy.

The food:

The food in Senegal is the best I have ever eaten. Everything is so fresh, natural, and flavorful. Meat nad fruits are the highlight, but food in general tastes better. Combine that with the delicious recipes that comprise a Senegalese diet, and I was well-fed and happy the whole time. Highlights include: Mafe (peanutbutter meat sauce), Cebu yapp (kind of like Jollof rice with meat), Yassa (a sauce made with a ton of onions that can be served with fish or chicken), and soupou kanja (some type of sauce with okra (I think)). Dibi, which is roasted goat served with onions and spicy mustard is also amazing. It can sometimes be hard to pass the next day, but suffice it to say, that I have had dreams about Dibi when I returned to the States.

Seeing old friends:

I was able to see my friend Ndeye two times. Once, I went to visit her where she works, and another time we went out to get Dibi together. She and I have stayed in contact since my trip to Senegal, and she was easily my best friend while I was there. I was also able to go back and visit my host mother, tata Aby, and her nephew Alasane. (There is also a cat in the house named mous (the wolof word for cat), who remembered me and gave me lots of hugs.) Finally, I got to see Tata Charlotte, my self-titled Senegalese mother. Tata Charlotte runs a stand selling fruit and snacks at a moving market in Senegal. We met on my first week in Senegal when we were both in line to buy phone credit. She offered me the girl next to her in line as my wife. I laughed it off and said I need to graduate first, but the weirdest part was that Tata Charlotte did not know the girl in line. She has an infectious personality that makes everyone in the room feel like family. I was able to stop by Tata Charlotte’s stand and catch up with her for a couple of hours. As always, she gave me gifts of various snacks and cooking ingredients, and refused to accept my payment. Tata Charlotte is another perfect example of the endless hospitality that can be found in Senegal. Unfortunately, my friend Thiat was not able to hang out.

Football

About 2-minutes away from my AirBNB home there was a football field. It was always full of various local teams playing games, and it was such an amazing place to just hang out. I would go to the side of the field, enjoy the sun, watch the game, and do some light reading. It became a really peaceful part of my daily routine.

In the end, a week in Senegal was exactly what I needed. The openness of Senegalese people, demonstrated by the fact that I got phone numbers from 5 people that I just met in the street, is a little bit different from the daily life in France. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and it was a very slow-paced week. The only problem is, that after a week I was definitely not anxious to go home.

Although I have already given some wolof phrases, I am going to include one more as the phrase of the week. Jamm rekk (literally “peace only”), is such a great way to sum up my time in Senegal. It is commonly used in response to how are you, or how is the family, and it is a super useful phrase to know. So, here, I am going to use it like peace out: Jamm rekk!  

My Grandfather’s Cousin and Colmar

Prepare yourself, because this week’s post is full of wild parties, endless nights, and general craziness. This weekend, I finally had the chance to meet my grandfather’s cousin, Monique. My great-grandfather was born in Europe and moved to the States when he was quite young. I never knew that I even had family in Europe, but apparently I do! Monique and I met once, 17 or so years ago, but I really do not remember it at all, so it was basically our first time meeting. I was definitely nervous to spend an entire weekend with an 84-year-old French woman that I had never met before, but it was a relatively welcome change of pace from the non-stop busyness that is GTL. So off I went, to the cutest little town of Colmar.

When I got to the train station, Monique and I did not recognize each other, so we definitely passed each other about 7 times in the span of 15 minutes (and Colmar’s train station is not exactly huge). Finally, after seeing her for the 8th time, I said Monique and gently touched her elbow. At least that’s what I thought, but the elderly French woman I was touching did not appreciate the gesture. However, the real Monique did hear her name and was able to find me. Finally, reunited at last.

We went back to her house for dinner. Dinner consisted of a picnic of traditional Alsatian food. Some delicious bread, some charcuterie, a salad, and of course—cheese! (It was even better than a kebab.) Thankfully, I had nothing to be worried about. Monique and I hit it off immediately. We talked about French culture, American politics, and art. After dinner, she shared stories about her time in Alsace during the German occupation in WWII, including a story about a classmate who got sent to a concentration camp for 6 weeks because she asked a question in French. (At the time it was illegal to speak French.)

The next day, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon in the Musée Unterlinden which had an amazing mix of modern art, ancient artifacts, and pre-Renaissance religious paintings. It was an amazing museum, especially considering how small Colmar is. Then, we went driving all through Alsace to see some Cathedrals. We even got to see the Cathedral where Monique’s sister, Betty, was married.

The next day, we drove along “la Route des vins” to get some amazing views and have lunch. Then, we spent the afternoon indoors playing scrabble and sharing stories.

Let me tell you, scrabble in a foreign language is much harder than expected. That being said, I did a lot better than I thought I would and only lost by 30 points.

This week, I feel like I did not have much to write about because so much of the experience could not be put into words. It was surreal to connect with such a distant relative, and I was shocked by how well we got along, despite our differences. There were certainly periods of silence, but none of those silences felt heavy or uncomfortable. It was just such a special opportunity and I am so lucky that I had it.

Now, for the phrase of the week. This week’s special comes from Alsace: “Il ne vient pas de Guebwiller.” Guebwiller is a small town in Alsace that is loosely based on the German word for generous. So the phrase literally translates to, “he does not come from Guebwiller,” but it is used to mean that someone is not generous. So, at the end of the weekend I tried to tell Monique that she IS from Gueberwiller, but the joke did not translate well. In the end, it was an amazing weekend, and I am just blown away by the connections that life throws to me.

Horror and Fantasy

In its variegated history, Germany has been the setting of fairy tales and real-life terrors. These are joined in Munich. Originally, I chose to travel to this city for my most depressing motivator: the belief that while I am able, I should witness firsthand the remnants of a concentration camp. Poland is a bit out of reach for me, so I decided on Dachau. I will not discuss this much further, as the experience is distinctly disturbing and to detail my thoughts would not be quite in line with my intended mood for this blog.

In contrast to Dachau, my other intention for visiting Munich was to take a day trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein, a nearby castle and the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Despite not allowing any photographs indoors, it is the most photographed building in Germany. This means that tourism runs rampant, and I learned an hour past the deadline that to see the inside of the castle, reservations must be made two days in advance. I held on to the hope that I would be able to buy tickets on site, given that it was snowing, not tourist season, and I intended to arrive at 9 am. It turned out to be a shorter line to buy tickets than to wait in the “express line” for those who reserved in advance. I don’t exactly advocate showing up unprepared, but at least in this case, most things that I was completely unprepared for turned out better than my series of plans and backups. On a whim, I bought a combined ticket that included a tour of the nearby Schloss Hohenschwangau, a much less remarkable structure externally but still another castle to visit.

As with most visitors, my intentions were primarily visual – Neuschwanstein is a beautiful building, after all. The castle was entirely satisfying in this matter, but I found myself most fascinated with the building’s creator. My tour inside this building turned out to be fairly unremarkable, but after further research I attribute this to a lackluster guide. Certain highlights interested me, such as the modernity of its design. Electricity, central heating, and running water (from the mouth of a swan statue into the King’s washbasin) were cleverly designed amenities incorporated in the overall elaborate aesthetic. The entire interior was intricate and beautiful, including such odd choices as a faux cave and extensive murals detailing scenes from the operas of Richard Wagner. This made me question how such things came about – a lucky choice of designer, or a King who actually took the time to think of all of this? The building’s beauty is self-evident, but there were few mentions of the people and stories that normally populate such a project. Small comments in passing hinted at more: the castle is largely unfinished, and only housed the king that built it for less than 200 days, before he died under mysterious circumstances.

 

As I waited for my tour at Hohenschwangau, I began researching this King Ludwig II. It turns out, his life is utterly fascinating. My tour in his childhood home of Hohenschwangau turned out to be fantastically informative of him and his family as well. This actually is a great combination – Neuschwanstein’s beauty attracts you and presents the mystery, while Hohenschwangau, less dramatic in its exterior, holds the information and history of the family. Due to the fact that it was actually lived in, the interior is filled with stunning gifts and intricate details. The king’s bedroom was even outfitted with glowing stars and a moon that changed to match the actual moon’s phase. The details of Ludwig’s life started to come together, centering around the theme of fantasy. He was utterly obsessed, and his entire life seemed to be out of some tale.

Ludwig ascended the throne at only 18 and was known to have little interest in ruling. According to Wikipedia, “he was not prepared for high office, [but] his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere.” This trend marked his life and eventual death. His fantasies appeared most notably in his obsession with Wagner, going so far as to consider abdicating the throne to follow him when he left Munich. Instead of getting too concerned in politics, Ludwig wished to elevate the cultural aspects of Bavaria, by investing in the arts and using his personal fortune to build an assortment of castles and palaces. His advisors believed this spending to be unreasonable, though they have now paid for themselves many time over due to the high-traffic tourism. Ultimately, they conspired to depose him and had psychologists declare him insane. The next day, he and his psychologist were found in the nearby lake, drowned allegedly as suicide. As his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria stated, “he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams.” Perhaps he should have left the throne for a life that suited him better.

As we travel, we unkowingly walk in the wake of uncomprehensible depth of history. I often get caught up in what is availible for me to go see right now, but forget to research the lives of those who came before. Even when there’s no tour guide or sign detailing what was significant, I can take it upon myself to follow leads that interest me, adding significance where little was before. That’s not to say that the present is less important. The entire history of a place should be appreciated and enjoyed. On this note, with my little remaining time in Munich I decided to follow a recommendation by my Grandpa. He travels constantly, and as he is of German heritage, he often comes to this country. As an inspiration in both my desire to travel and to become an engineer like him, he recommended I visit the Deutsches Museum. I only regret not being able to spend as much time here as the museum deserves, given that it is the world’s largest STEM museum, with substantial amounts of English descriptions! Any Tech student would love this museum, and I highly recommend setting aside as much time as you can to explore.

When in France, Do As the Germans Do

The great benefit of GTL as a study abroad program is the pure freedom. Initially, I thought of this in terms of time and space – 4 months of unlimited trains spanning most of western Europe. The longer I am here, though, the more I realize how many different ways this program can be experienced. I have been talking to many other students at GTL about how they have shaped this program for themselves.

The student population is small enough that everyone becomes a familiar face after a while, so it’s not unusual for me to beg for homework help from someone I’m only vaguely sure is in that class. This odd familiarity we’ve found ourselves in leads to small talk of weekends in Italy and bruises from Swiss Alps: the kind of chats I figured only those rich enough to use “summer” as a verb would be having, yet here we are. But my foolproof blueprint for social interaction has begun to fail. It’s almost as if I can’t just ask every person the same question and have conversation flow flawlessly. I thought this was like FASET, where you just ask every acquaintance what their major is and promptly form arbitrary cliques. But now, not every time I ask where someone went this weekend is it met with tales of an exotic trip 4 countries away.

It began with the graduate students. Most of them are not Americans partying abroad, but French or other nearby European students studying in a program that allows them a dual degree from both their home university and GT. To them, GTL isn’t the haven of travel I see it, but could be a bridge to a job in America, or just a diversification of their education. I commend all of them – I can’t understand fluid mechanics when it’s taught in my first language.

My friend Seth, a fellow American undergraduate, has spent, as far as I know, every weekend at GTL in Metz. I was shocked at first. I had once considered doing this as a means to afford going to Europe without paying for travel every weekend, but to voluntarily ignore all the easily accessible countries for just our corner of France? The more he explained though, the more boring my own approach seemed in comparison. Unlike me, Seth has actually learned French fairly well, and he came to France not for “that constant vacation feel” but to solidify his knowledge of the language while forming bonds with those of another nationality. His approach is not to use Metz just as a gateway to other attractions, but as an opportunity to experience living somewhere entirely new. This is an uncommon experience – not just living in a new location, but in a novel country and culture.

Since talking with Seth, I’ve tried to focus more on imagining life in the countries I visit, on a more day-to-day scale. My purpose in coming to GTL was to experience more than my little corner of the world, so I put an emphasis on breadth in order to generally calibrate my understanding of places. Now, I also imagine what living in these locations would look like. France, I can certainly comprehend, as I’m doing it right now (albeit in a sheltered GTL bubble). Regardless, I love the French people, language, and food. More interesting to me, however, is comparing this experience to the other countries I have visited. I have a running theory that the ideal sample of a European country can be found in its public transportation. The Italians sang and played guitar, the Germans passed around beer, and on one train the French were so utterly silent, I was too self-conscious to eat a sandwich. All of these I enjoyed, but in different manners. Italy is a beautiful, lively country, but I cannot imagine myself living there. I’m too introverted for their familiar style, and I prefer the quiet of a French train. The Germans seemed surprisingly jolly in most of my interactions with them and spoke more English than most other countries, making for another appealing option.

Ultimately, my strongest driving factor in evaluating countries is on their food. The Germans brought me the best new food: currywurst. France has the most diverse food, with a surprisingly strong Asian trend that satisfies my cravings. Italy, of course, has pasta, pizza, and gelato to die for, but it seemed comically void of literally any other food. Every meal was simply a choice between the three (yes, gelato is a meal to me). My ultimate favorite remains the glorious Belgian fry. Street carts and café’s devoted to fries line the streets of Belgium, and people wait around the block. Sauces come in more flavors than you can imagine, and the little forks make eating somehow so much more enjoyable. For this alone, I could thrive in Belgium. I may not quite want to give up my nomadic lifestyle for the sake of cultural acclimation, but “playing house” internationally has become my new favorite game.

Verdun, dun dun dun dududuhhhhh

This weekend, I took a different approach to planning my weekend trip. I, the forward-thinking, avant-garde hipster that I am, decided to point to a city on a map, go there, and then find things to do. The city that I ended up choosing was Verdun. Verdun is a small little city, somewhere between a city and a town, that is about an hour east of Metz and has amazing WWI history, as well as some WWII history, but the WWI history is what puts the town on the map. I got to Verdun just after 9PM on Saturday, and like most small towns in France, it was dead. I saw one other person throughout my walk to my AirBnB and not a single store was open.

I got checked in and settled to my AirBnB, which was absolutely amazing, and the  history of the city showed itself immediately. My hosts had, on display in my room, gas masks and food canisters from WWI that were found in the walls of the building when they purchased the unit. These artifacts even had the family’s name and year written on the bottom. It was such a great start to my stay.

After unpacking my bags, I decided to go on a walk and explore the city a little bit. I walked from my apartment to the downtown area and it was just breathtaking. The cutest town with a river through the middle, statues and memorials scattered throughout, and a healthy mix of storefronts, restaurants, and bars.

I stopped and read every statue that I came across, some for ancient Polish leaders before the 19th century and many for the lost lives, known and unknown, during WWI. There were also a lot of sculptures, especially near the river. The town was so incredibly picturesque, and I just had the best time walking around.

The next day, I woke up and went to tour the cathedral. It was about 73 steps from the front door of where I was staying, so it was an ideal place to start. Although there were not any guided tours, I was able to go into the cathedral and look around. That was the end of my luck of a last-minute trip. Everything else that I wanted to see or do was closed, thanks to the fact that it was a Sunday during the off-season.

So, with nothing concrete to explore, I just walked around the city. I re-explored the downtown area in the daylight, found new monuments, and walked through the residential part of the town to get a good feel for it. I even found this one sculpture down by the river that I really enjoyed, so I grabbed lunch and sat there and enjoyed the town, the river, the sculpture, and my kebab. (What else is there to eat in France?) However, the freezing nature made this quintessential touristy moment short lived so I went to get a coffee and catch the train home. Of course, the train from Verdun to Metz was cancelled so I had to train to Nancy then from Nancy to Metz. It was just such a great reminder of how the entire trip had gone.

Now, today’s, phrase of the weeeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek, eeeeeeeeeeek. (Those of you who grew up listening the Rickey Smiley’s Morning show will get that joke; the rest of you can do some research. Hint: Joke of the day introduction.) This week’s phrase of the week is: chouette. Chouette is a fun French word that means fancy, cool, high fashion, and awesome all in one. The word itself sounds fun. (It’s pronounced like sweat but with an sh sound instead of just s.) Say it 10 times, and you’ll understand why it means what it means!

Page 1 of 12

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén